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Fanfiction: Tales of the 43rd Hunger Games

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Summary: District 2 tribute Lartius Rankine is the underdog of his class at the Tribute Training Center. District 4 tribute Rendwick Combe hates the whole idea of the Hunger Games. The boys met prior to the Games, when they were younger. They team up so there'll be a familiar face in the arena.

Note: This is contains elements from both the books and the movie.

The Reaping

"Lartius Rankine."

The boys in the right-hand crowd all slowly turned to the back of the group. Some of them raised their eyebrows with interest. Lartius emerged from the back of the crowd and made his way up to the stage, flanked by Peacekeepers. He could hear excited whispers around him. Eunia Allardyce, the female tribute called up before him, glared as he mounted the stage.

Lartius knew he was a little unusual for a male District 2 tribute. Usually, the male tributes were tall and menacing. Lartius was the runt of his class at the Tribute Training Center. All the other guys and some of the girls towered over him. He was only five-foot-seven, pretty short for a seventeen-year-old guy. One of the younger girls mentioned once that he had an innocent look about him, particularly his eyes.

Eunia stood proudly onstage, a smug look of confidence on her face. Their Capitol escort went back up to the microphone. "Any volunteers?"

Surprisingly, there was silence among the crowd. District 2 males were most likely to volunteer for the Games. This was the first time Lartius could remember that there wasn't a male volunteer. He wasn't sure why no one was stepping up. There were a lot of guys who were bigger, faster, and stronger than him. Guys who thought they had a better shot of winning than he did. But Lartius had the distinct notion that no one was volunteering because they were curious to see how well he would do.

"Ladies and gentlemen," the Capitol escort said finally, "your District 2 tributes!" She gestured grandly. "Shake hands, you two."

She stepped back. Lartius politely shook Eunia's hand. Eunia, however, was looking at him with a hungry gleam in her eye, like he was a roast turkey.

"Happy Hunger Games," said the Capitol escort with flourish, "and may the odds be ever in your favor."

The Peacekeepers took Eunia and Lartius into the Hall of Justice. As Lartius was taken into a room to wait for his family to say good-bye, he felt a small sense of eagerness. He hated being the shortest in his class. People always underestimated him, thought he wasn't fast enough or strong enough, even though they all trained the same amount of hours. The people whispering in the crowds were waiting for a good show. Lartius was ready to give them one.

Lartius was only in there a few minutes before his family came in: his mom, dad, and seven-year-old brother Jax. Jax immediately ran and hugged his big brother around the middle, shouting, "They picked you, they picked you!"

"They sure did, buddy," Lartius replied, hugging him back. Jax was excited. No one he knew ever got picked for the Games.

His parents were smiling proudly of him, his mother a little nervously.

His dad took him by the shoulders. "Remember," his dad said seriously, "don't let anyone get to you, but make sure they don't ignore you."

"I know," Lartius said, nodding.

"And just," his mother interjected, "be careful in there. Make us proud."

"I will," Lartius reassured her. "I promise."

"Are you gonna win?" Jax asked his brother.

Lartius smiled at him. "I think so."

Jax hugged him again. "I'll miss you."

His father grabbed all of them in a giant hug. Then, the Peacekeepers came in and quickly pulled Lartius' family out of the room. He did feel a pang inside him, wishing they hadn't been pulled out so quickly.

The next minute, Lartius was taken by the Peacekeepers out to the car ride to the train station. When he saw Eunia, she wasn't smiling smugly. She instead looked stoic and stone-faced. Lartius suspected she and her family had a difficult good-bye.

The cameras continued to follow them as they reached the train station. As Lartius and Eunia got out of the car, reporters starting yelling questions at them. They were all in the same vein: "Were you surprised you were picked for the Games this year?" "How do you feel about your chances in the arena?" "Is there anything you'd like to say to the people you're about to face in the Games?" But the Training Center always told them if they were picked to never answer a reporter's questions. All of those questions would be asked in the interviews before the Games. This was to keep a bit of the mystery from the spectators. Finally, Lartius and Eunia were ushered into the train and whisked away from the cameras and reporters.


"Rendwick Combe."

From the far back of the crowd, Rendwick felt his heart sink horribly. He had been desperately hoping it wouldn't be him, just like he did every year. Sure, he was one of the best guys at the Training Center, but he hated every minute of it. And yet he couldn't let it show. He had to do what was expected of him.

Rendwick walked up to the stage with a little swagger. Nitya Flamsteed, the female tribute, eyed him with trepidation. She knew of his reputation in the Training Center, but she'd never seen what he was capable of.

Their Capitol escort went back up to the microphone. "Any volunteers?"

The silence in the crowd was deafening. Volunteers were not uncommon in District 4, but all the guys knew, like Nitya, that Rendwick was the best choice for the job.

"All right, then," the Capitol escort said finally, "ladies and gentlemen, your tributes from District 4! Shake hands," she said to Rendwick and Nitya.

Rendwick and Nitya politely shook hands. Rendwick noticed that Nitya was sizing him up, seeing how confident he felt up going into the Games.

"Happy Hunger Games," the Capitol escort chimed, "and may the odds be ever in your favor."

The Peacekeepers onstage took Rendwick and Nitya into the Hall of Justice. He could sense that Nitya was a little jittery. He did his best to steady his own nerves. He was taught in the Training Center that even the smallest sign of weakness opened the door to getting killed. Especially for a guy.

Rendwick sat on the sofa in the room the Peacekeepers put him in, waiting for his parents and sister. The idea of leaving them felt like a horrible knot in his stomach. His sister, Thonia, was only eight months old. He had been looking forward to watching her grow into her own person.

The door opened. Rendwick instantly stood up and hugged his parents tightly. He really didn't want to let go of them.

"We're so proud of you," he heard his mother whisper.

He nodded silently. This might be the last time he would see his family. He thought it was best not to mouth off.

"And we're sure you'll make us prouder in the arena," his father said, releasing him.

Rendwick nodded again. "Yeah, I will."

His attention shifted to Thonia, who was reaching for him in his mother's arms. Smiling, he picked her up.

"Hey. I'm gonna miss you a lot," he said to her. She waved one of her little fists. "Try not to grow up too fast, okay?" He kissed the top of her head.

The door opened and the Peacekeepers came to take them out. Rendwick quickly kissed Thonia again and passed her back to his mother. The Peacekeepers quickly ushered them out of the room.

The cameras were waiting for them to come out of the Hall of Justice. As he and Nitya made their way to the train, he noticed she'd been crying. He knew that she was quite close to her family. That's the way it was in District 4. People valued the friendships they made and the connections they had with other people.

The walk to the train wasn't that long, so the reporters tried to get a little information out of Rendwick and Nitya. Nitya glared at the cameras, clearly in no mood to talk. Rendwick just ignored them and kept walking to the train, his eyes forward. He pushed past them to get inside. He didn't even look back at them as the train slowly began to move.


Lartius and Eunia sat in the dining car of the train, waiting for their mentors. District 2 had a lot of them. They were always the most favored district to win. Lartius knew all of their names, but not all of their faces. He wondered who he was going to get.

His question was answered when the door to the dining car opened and Brutus and Lyme walked in. Everyone in District 2 knew them. Brutus won two years ago and Lyme won about ten years ago.

"Congratulations," Brutus said to them. He shook Lartius' hand, then Eunia's. Lyme did the same. Brutus was always a straightforward person. Lyme was, too, but she knew when to tone it down.

Brutus sat down in the chair opposite Lartius. "I'll be your mentor," he said to Lartius, "and Lyme will be yours," he added to Eunia.

Both of them nodded.

"You seem eager," Brutus noted, referring to Lartius.

"I'm ready to show what I'm capable of," Lartius said simply.

Brutus grinned. "That's what I like to hear."

"And what about you?" Lyme asked Eunia.

"I've been ready since my name was called," Eunia said, her smug smile back in place.

Lyme nodded. "Good. But I wanna ask both of you something: Do you think the Games are easy? Or do you think the past District 2 tributes just made them look easy?"

Lartius and Eunia were taken a little aback by this question. Given their intensive training back home, he knew the Games weren't exactly a cakewalk. But Lartius remembered how the high-district tributes were so confident going into the Games because of how well prepared they are.

"They made it look easy, I guess," Lartius answered.

Lyme nodded. "Why do you say that?"

"Because they prepared for it, just like we had to," Eunia answered. "And it's not like we were trained to survive a specific circumstance. It's not like we studied how to survive the Games in a swamp arena only to find out when they started that we're fighting in a desert. They trained us to be versatile survivors."

"That's true," Brutus put in. "Now why do you think tributes from outlying districts might survive if they manage to avoid the bloodbath at the Cornucopia?"

Now Lartius and Eunia were stumped. They looked at each other, puzzled, and just shrugged.

"Coming into the Games as high-district tributes is a blessing and a curse," Lyme said seriously. "Tributes from outlying districts are not as well prepared as you, because they aren't fed as much. They're used to not having enough to eat. You're not."

"If you team up with the right people in the arena, you'll survive most of the Games," Brutus added. "Then, you have to win. District 2 has a long-standing tradition of winning the Games. You both know that District 2 produces the most victors. You need to be able to handle that kind of pressure."


Rendwick and Nitya sat in silence, waiting for their mentors to show up. Rendwick could tell that Nitya was keeping herself calm after saying good-bye to her family. Her tears had dried, but the memory weighed heavily on her. He could tell.

The door to the dining car opened and Mags and Hyssop came in. They were the oldest victors of District 4, and always treated with respect back home. Hyssop won about fifteen years ago, and Mags about twenty years ago.

"Hello," Mags said kindly, "and congratulations to you both." She shook both of their hands. "Hyssop will be your mentor, Nitya," she turned to Rendwick, "and I'll be yours."

Rendwick was pleased. He always liked Mags. Even though she had to mentor tributes every year, she treated them like human beings instead of pigs being sent to the slaughter.

Hyssop looked expectedly at Nitya. She seemed to have gained some nerves. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

Nitya let out a breath. "I don't know, really. I miss my family already, and I'm afraid that that was the last time I'll ever see them."

Hyssop nodded sympathetically. "I know it's hard. But if you really love them and want to see them again, you'll make sure nothing gets in your way of winning this thing. Okay?"

Nitya nodded, albeit unsurely.

"And one way to ensure that you win," Hyssop went on, "is to team up with the right people. The high-district tributes are well trained. If you become their allies, you get to know their weaknesses. Use them to survive until the other tributes are killed. Then, you fight your way to victory."

Rendwick and Nitya nodded. This was the same strategy high-district tributes used every year.

"Should we take a look at the Reapings?" Mags asked. "See who you're facing?"

Rendwick and Nitya nodded again. Mags reached into the side table drawer for the remote control. She pointed it at the screen in the car and turned it on.

Several people stood out for Rendwick, most of them boys. A tall, very muscular guy with a shaved head from District 1, who volunteered in the place of a sixteen-year-old. This was no act of protection, though. The guy who volunteered believed he had a better shot at winning. A guy from District 2, who was a little short for a high-district tribute. A wiry, but confident-looking guy from District 3.

Then came District 4. When the escort called his name, he quickly searched for his own face in the crowd. He watched himself walk up and stand onstage, looking for signs of fear or even just nerves. He saw nothing. He let nothing show.

After District 4, there wasn't really anybody interesting. There were a few more sixteen through eighteen-year-olds, but the rest were younger. The younger ones usually didn't survive very long. He did note that both tributes from Twelve were over 16.

After watching the Reapings, Rendwick noticed Nitya looked more confident. She clearly didn't see much competition from the other districts. Mags and Hyssop had told both of them to ally themselves with the high-district tributes, to ensure they wouldn't die right away.

Rendwick glanced out the window and saw that the terrain was becoming more mountainous. The nerves began to climb up his throat. He swallowed hard. No nerves, no fear, no nothing. No matter what.

The Parade

Lartius rested his forehead on the windowpane. He and Eunia had just finished watching the other Reapings and had a lengthy conversation with Brutus and Lyme about who they should create alliances with and who to keep an eye on in the arena. Eunia wanted to team up with the tributes from District 1. The only people that stood out to Lartius were the male tributes from Three and Four. The guy from Four in particular. He wasn't sure why.

Lartius noticed the change in scenery and sat up. He had only seen the Capitol on television. It seemed bigger and more amazing in person. He gaped at the skyline as the train passed through the mountains. They passed through the tunnel and emerged in front of a colorful crowd of Capitol citizens. They were all waving and smiling at him and Eunia. Eunia just stared at them. She seemed halfway between intrigued and bewildered by the way they dressed.

The train raced by the Capitol citizens and stopped right at a tall, thin building right outside the City Circle. The Remake Center. Brutus and Lyme guided them in, and handed them over to their respective prep teams. They would see them shortly before the Tribute Parade.

Lartius' prep team consisted of two women, Aldeen and Bree, and one man, Cord. Each of them had brightly colored hair, and Aldeen had intricate swirling tattoos winding up her arms. They had him strip and lie down on a metal table as they hosed him down and scrubbed him until his skin felt raw. The metal table made him feel like he was in a morgue. His hair was combed out and trimmed and part of his chest waxed. He was poked and prodded for what felt like hours. His prep team chattered happily amongst themselves as they worked on him. It was the oddest feeling. Finally, the prep team wheeled him, still on the metal table, into a room to wait for his stylist.

He put on the robe left out for him in the room and waited for a while before she finally showed up. She was a young woman with olive skin, teal-colored eyes, very high (possibly surgically altered) cheekbones, and curly waist-length hair so light it looked white. She had a certain regal presence about her.

"Hello," she said, reaching for Lartius' hand. "I'm Tayena. Congratulations."

"Thanks," Lartius said, shaking her hand.

"So," she said, "let's have a look at you. Robe off, please."

Lartius took off the robe and laid it on the metal table. Tayena circled around him, not touching, just looking. Lartius kept his eyes forward. He'd never been naked around a woman before. He felt intensely vulnerable.

"All right," Tayena finally said, handing Lartius back his rob. She sat down in the chair opposite him. "Now, I have to get you ready for the Tribute Parade." She clasped her hands in her lap. "You've seen how past tributes from your district have been dressed as in previous Parades."

"Yeah," Lartius replied. "They're always something strong and powerful. Sometimes they're dressed as gods."

"Exactly, but Dorache and I are gonna add a twist to that." Lartius assumed this Dorache was Eunia's stylist. "District 2 has the most victors. More often than not, they're most likely to win the Games. So we wanna keep that warrior, god-like aspect, and make everyone think that you're a chiseled piece of steel."

Lartius noticed the emphasis put on the last few words and grinned a little. A warrior literally made of steel.

"That sounds great," Lartius said, impressed. He noticed how the stylists kept this theme for District 2 for a few years and managed to throw a new spin on it. They did a good job keeping the idea from getting stale.

Tayena showed him his costume, which he was further impressed by. It was comprised of form-fitting bright silver material arranged to look like armor. There were also thick, sleek boots the same color as the rest of the costume, and an additional headpiece that looked a helmet. He wondered if Eunia would be wearing the same thing.

"What, I don't get a sword?" he joked.

Tayena laughed. "Excited to get into the arena already?"

Lartius nodded. "It looks fantastic."

"All right, put it on," Tayena said. "I'll put the finishing touches before you get in the chariot."


The Remake Center was unpleasant for Rendwick. His prep team was entirely male. Holt had a chin-length bright red bob, Santoliv had patches of his hair dyed green-ish blue and yellow, and Flick had half of his hair shaved on one side of his head and the other half was a mix of straight and curly hair dyed different shades of blue. Flick was the most elaborate Capitol citizen Rendwick had ever seen.

"I've never met someone who smelled so much like saltwater," Flick said, hosing Rendwick down for a fourth time. That was probably the fifteenth time Flick mentioned how much Rendwick smelled like saltwater. Flick certainly lived up to his stereotype.

Rendwick had liquid soap and lotion spread over his body, hosed down, and scrubbed off about six times before they couldn't smell the saltwater anymore. Part of his chest was waxed and his hair was washed thoroughly, since his prep team also had to get the saltwater out of there. It felt like hours before his prep team left him in a room to wait for his stylist.

Rendwick was feeling nervous. He put on the robe they left for him and paced around the metal table.

"Hello."

Rendwick turned around and saw a woman he assumed to be his stylist. He couldn't tell how old she was; most Capitol citizens were surgically enhanced to look younger. She had dark skin, even darker eyes, long and thick golden eyelashes, and braids sprouting out of her head dyed different shades of blue and green.

"I'm Zhenya," she said in a strangely deep voice. "I'll be your stylist."

Rendwick shook her hand. She had a different accent from the Capitol citizens. Her vowels seemed to bounce, some of her words dipped, and others were slurred together. He'd never actually heard this accent before.

"You're not from Panem, are you?" Rendwick asked.

Zhenya smiled. "No, I'm not. I am from an island nation called Burlezota."

"So, what are you doing here?"

"I was recruited by the Capitol. They heard of my designing and textile skills. Instead of sending me to District 8, they employed me here for the Hunger Games."

"Did they have something like this back in Burlezota?"

Zhenya shook her head. "No one back in Burlezota would ever dream of something like this."

Rendwick paused. "Do they know what you're doing here?"

"No, they don't." Her eyes were wide. "If they did, they would not allow me to return."

Rendwick nodded. He decided not to pry any further. "I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable asking you all of this-"

Zhenya shook her head again, calmer this time. "It's fine. I like telling people about my culture back home. In fact, my partner Ordoz has let me use pieces of my culture for your Tribute Parade costume. Nitya's, too."

Rendwick nodded. His interest mounted.

"In Burlezota, everything is ruled by the moon and the tides. Life among water is sacred to us. We're a peaceful nation, but we do have a military. It's made up of very strong and skilled warriors of the sea."

"Warriors of the sea?" Rendwick repeated. "You mean like pirates?"

"Exactly. District 4 specializes in fishing. They also have a large amount of victors. You are all warriors of the sea."

Rendwick felt a surge of pride in being called a "warrior of the sea". It definitely sounded better than being a tribute.

Zhenya helped him into his costume. It was made of very thin, baggy fabric. The pants and vest were brown and the shirt was a dark sea green. Pieces of fishnets were attached to the vest, dangling down by his ankles. He also had a brown hat with more fishnets attached to it.

Zhenya took him down to the bottom level of the Remake Center, where they met up with Nitya and Ordoz, who was putting the final touches on Nitya's costume. Her costume was similar to Rendwick's except she wore a floor-length skirt covered in fishnets instead of pants. Ordoz was spraying golden brown paint on her cheekbones and temples.

"You, too," Zhenya said to Rendwick, facing him towards her. She picked up the same tool Ordoz was using. "Close your eyes." Rendwick obliged. He felt air pressure and paint sprayed on his cheekbones and temples, just like Nitya.

When Rendwick was done, he noticed a couple other districts were also using face spray paint. District 1 had bright gold sparkly paint on their forearms and back of their hands to match their expensive looking gown and tuxedo. District 2 had silver on their temples and cheekbones like Rendwick and Nitya did. Their costumes looked like armor. Rendwick tried to catch a glimpse of the male tribute he remembered from watching the Reapings, but he was facing the other way.

Mags and Hyssop showed up by the chariot. They glanced up and down Rendwick and Nitya with approval.

"Nice job," Hyssop said to Zhenya and Ordoz. They smiled and nodded in thanks.

"All right," Mags said. "When you're in the chariots, you stand strong, you look at the crowd, but don't smile. It'll ruin the illusion."

Rendwick nodded. He was good at keeping his face from showing emotion.

A voice boomed loudly through the air, "Tributes, please enter your chariots."

Zhenya gave Rendwick a comforting pat on the shoulder. He gave her a small smile and climbed into the chariot. Nitya climbed in next to him and took a deep breath.

The opening music blasted through the air, making a few tributes jump. One by one, the chariots began to move. They wheeled in a straight line down the streets as people cheered and clapped. As they drove by the crowd, Rendwick saw individual faces, all brightly colored, all exuberant, clearly entertained by the parade. He heard some people cheering and chanting for District 4. Rendwick looked up at the large television screen and was further impressed by the work Zhenya and Ordoz had done on the both of them. They looked tough and menacing, but also like they had just crawled out of the ocean.

People in the crowd began throwing flowers at them. A few red roses fell into their chariot. Rendwick and Nitya looked down at them, but didn't pick them up. If smiling would ruin the illusion of being a warrior of the sea, picking up the roses would do the same.

The chariots all entered the City Circle. When his chariot stopped, Rendwick tried again to find the male tribute from District 2, but he was directly in front of him, so Rendwick still couldn't see his face.

"Welcome," a voice boomed. Rendwick looked up to find President Snow standing at his podium. He didn't remember hearing the music end. "Welcome. Tributes, we welcome you. And we salute your courage and your sacrifice. And we wish you Happy Hunger Games!"

The crowd started cheering again.

"And may the odds be ever in your favor," President Snow concluded.


As soon as Lartius and Eunia's chariot wheeled back into the Remake Center, his prep team was all over him, saying how great he and Eunia were out here. Tayena and Dorache showed up a little while later.

"Fantastic. You were both fantastic," Tayena said, smiling.

"Thanks," Lartius said.

Lartius saw Brutus and Lyme made their way to their chariot. He quickly got out, Eunia following him right after.

"Well done," Brutus said. "You were stoic, strong, and stone-faced."

"Just like you told us," Eunia replied.

Lyme nodded approvingly. "All right, we have to get you out of this costume. Tomorrow, you guys have your first day in the Training Center."

As Tayena and Dorache took off their headpieces, Brutus and Lyme looked around at the other tributes. Lartius did the same. He was drawn to the male tribute from District 4, the tall one with brown hair, broad shoulders and long torso. He couldn't help it. He remembered him from watching the Reapings on the train. There was something familiar about him. He couldn't put his finger on it.

Lartius watched him get escorted away by his mentor and stylist. He'd probably get a better look at him the next day during training.

The Memory

Rendwick jolted awake at dawn. He wasn’t usually an early riser, except on weekends when he had to fish. His mind wandered back to home. Now that he was in the Capitol, his mother had to go fishing on weekends. His father worked at one of the shops in town. He didn’t know who would watch Thonia. Maybe his mother would take her when she went fishing, hoping to spike her interest in the trade at a young age. Even younger than Rendwick was when his mother took him out on the boat for the first time.

He couldn’t believe that yesterday morning he was waking up in his bedroom.

He tried to go back to sleep but it was no use. He finally got out of bed, showered, and got dressed. He went to the dining room and found Nitya already eating.

“You couldn’t sleep either?” he asked.

Nitya looked around at him. “No.” She took a bite of sausage. “I never wake up this early.”

“Me neither,” Rendwick replied. He sat down next to her, grabbed a roll of bread and spread some jam on it. He felt eyes on him, and looked over at Nitya who quickly looked down at her plate.

“What?” he asked.

She served herself a spoonful of eggs. “It’s just… how can you seem so calm? I haven’t seen you look the least bit nervous, ever since the Reaping. You just seem so confident, like you already know how you’re gonna turn out in the arena.”

Rendwick laughed, more to himself. “I don’t really. I’m just good at keeping my nerves in check, that’s all. It was one of the first things I learned in the Training Center.”

“So you like to keep people guessing?” Nitya asked.

Rendwick nodded, reaching for some fruit in the iced tureen. “It adds to the mystery and it’ll buy me time in the arena.”

Nitya raised her eyebrows, impressed.

Footsteps announced the arrival of Mags and Hyssop. They sat down with them at the table. Rendwick was glad they didn’t start talking about their training right away. The rest of breakfast, however, was eaten in silence. Aside from training, or just the Games in general, there wasn’t much to talk about. It wasn’t until they all had clean plates that Mags and Hyssop got to business.

“All right,” Mags said, placing her napkin next to her plate. “Firstly, if you want, you can be coached separately.”

“In case one of you has a secret skill you don’t want to reveal,” Hyssop added.

“What if you just like training alone?” Nitya asked.

“So, you want to be coached separately?” Hyssop asked her.

“Yeah.” She turned to Rendwick. “If you don’t mind.”

“No, that’s okay,” he replied.

Mags nodded. “Okay, now about your skills. Is there anything you did at the Training Center you were particularly good at?”

“I can shoot,” Nitya replied. “Bow and arrow.”

“All right,” Hyssop said. “What about you?” he asked Rendwick.

“Well, I was the fastest and strongest in my class,” Rendwick replied, “but I’m also handy with a trident. It’s something I learned to do outside the Center.”

“Your mom taught you?” Mags asked.

Rendwick nodded. Everyone in District 4 knew his family.

“Well, there probably won’t be any tridents in the Training Center here,” Hyssop said, “so you’ll have to make do with a spear.”

Rendwick nodded again. “I can do that.”

“We don’t want to establish your specialty right away, though,” Mags interjected. “What we want you to do is try everything at least once. Give your best skills a try in the Center, just to get used to the feel of the equipment, because I’m sure the bow and arrows here are different from the ones back home. Try to learn something you don’t know yet. Learn to set traps and snares. Try hand-to-hand combat. You got that?”

Rendwick and Nitya nodded.

After breakfast, Rendwick and Nitya rode the elevator down to the Training Center. Some of the tributes were already there, grouped in a circle. Nitya spotted the tributes from District 1 and went to stand by them. Looks like she picked her alliance, Rendwick thought to himself. It took a while for the remaining tributes to show up.

The head trainer, Zorai, stood in the middle of the group. She had pink tones in her fair skin and what appeared to be naturally auburn hair tied back in a ponytail.

“Welcome, tributes,” she said. Rendwick noticed her lack of a Capitol accent. “This is where you will be spending the next three days preparing for the Games. Each skill has a station with its own expert that can guide you if you need help, or give you advice to improve. You’re permitted to move around the different stations, per your mentor’s instructions. Some stations teach survival skills, including plant identification, camouflage, fire making, snare-setting, hammock making, fishing, knots, and building shelter. Others teach various fighting techniques, such as archery, sword fighting, hand-to-hand combat, knives, spears, axes, maces, slingshots, weightlifting, and wrestling. There are assistants at each fighting station if you want to practice with a partner.”

Rendwick eyed all the different stations. If he weren’t in the Games, he would see this as a fun recreational activity.

“There are three courses I would suggest you try as well, given that none of you know exactly what the arena will be.” She gestured to her right. “Over here is the Gauntlet. It has rising and falling platforms. Trainers will also swing padded clubs at you, to make it more difficult. The goal is to finish the obstacle course in the fastest time possible.” She pointed behind her at a set of two bars with a lot of bumps and dips. Four rings hung on the bars. “This is the rings course, probably our most difficult course, as it requires a lot of upper body strength.” She pointed right above the tributes’ heads. “This is the rope course. If you fall on any of these and want to try again, you go to the back of the line. It’s not mandatory that you try these, but it is always recommended.”

During Zorai’s speech, Rendwick found the male tribute from District 2. He could finally get a better look at him out of his costume from the Tribute Parade. He noticed his jet-black hair and innocent-looking hazel eyes.

He turned his head and looked right at Rendwick. The second he did, the name sprang instantly into his mind.

Lartius Rankine.

Of course he remembered him. They met when they were younger. He could remember it clear as day.

Transportation between the districts was restricted to trade. However, a school in District 2 was granted permission to take the train to District 4 and spend the day at a school there. Rendwick was eight years old. Lartius was made his “buddy” for all the day’s activities. They clicked instantly. Rendwick liked him a lot more than the friends he’d made at school already.

During the day, both classes went on a tour of the district. Each “buddy” from District 4 acted as a tour guide for the visitor from District 2. Rendwick was a bit of a troublemaker at eight, so he pulled Lartius out of the tour group and took him to his favorite place in the world, the shore.

“This is your favorite place in the world?” Lartius asked, looking around.

Rendwick nodded. “My mom takes me here every weekend. She’s been teaching me how to catch fish. She said she’d teach me how to catch shellfish like lobster and crab when I get older.” He sat down on the sand. “And me and my friends come here a lot and have swimming races.”

“You can swim?” Lartius asked, sitting down next to him.

“Everyone here can swim.”

“I can’t.” Rendwick looked at him in surprise.

“You can’t?”

“There’s not a lot of beaches in District 2, so I never learned.”

“What’s it like there?” Rendwick asked.

Lartius shrugged. “It’s different. It’s really serious. District 2 is where the Peacekeepers are trained. And people there make a lot of weapons. Here, everything seems like more fun. Like, your mom’s been teaching you how to fish already, and you love it. My dad won’t let me anywhere near his workshop. He says I’ll learn everything when I get older.”

“What does he do?”

“He’s a blacksmith.”

“What’s that?”

“He works with metal. Mostly iron and steel. I’ve seen him take a piece of metal, stick it in the fire for a while, then he’ll beat it with a hammer to make it into a different shape. He makes things like gates and tools.” Lartius scooped up some of the sand. “I mean, I guess I get why he won’t teach me what he does. He doesn’t want me to get hurt trying to work around fire.”

Rendwick nodded.

Lartius let all the sand fall out between his fingers. “So are we just gonna sit here?”

Lartius asked him. “Yeah. I do that sometimes. I just like to come here and sit by myself.”

“That’s all?”

Rendwick then got an idea. “Have you ever made a sandcastle before?”

Lartius shook his head.

Rendwick stood up. “I’ll show you.”

Rendwick ran out to the shore gates to retrieve his plastic bucket. He’d left it hiding in a bush for safekeeping. He quickly took off his shoes, rolled up his pants, and waded into the water to get some wet sand.

“Here’s what you do,” Rendwick said when he came back with his heavy bucket of sand. “You fill up the bucket with wet sand then find some dry sand,” he led Lartius to a good spot on the beach, “and you turn the bucket over like this.” He turned the bucket upside down on the sand. He pounded it with his palm a little, then slowly lifted the bucket up. The sand maintained its cylindrical shape.

“Just like that?” Lartius asked.

“Yup. Then you do it over and over. Last summer, I tried to make a really big tower of them but the tides washed it all away before I was done.”

“Can I go and get sand?”

“Rendwick!”

The boys looked up to find Rendwick’s teacher at the shore gates. “Why did you two run off? You were supposed to stay in line!”

“I wanted to show Lartius the shores,” Rendwick said reasonably.

“Well, get back in line,” she said sharply. “I don’t want you two running off again.”

Groaning a little, Rendwick rolled his pants back down and put on his shoes. He put his bucket back in the bush by the gates. Lartius and Rendwick joined the line again.

Rendwick had never connected with someone his age like this before. He wanted to keep that. But they lost touch when Lartius went back to District 2. Rendwick had considered him a long-lost childhood friend.

Rendwick suspected that Lartius remembered him, too. He saw a wave of recognition pass over his face when they looked at each other.

“And for a few last words of advice,” Zorai said, bringing Rendwick back to Earth. “First off, no fighting with other tributes, you’ll have plenty time for that in the arena. Secondly, don’t ignore the survival skills. Everyone wants to grab a sword but most of you will die of natural causes. Ten percent from infection. Twenty percent from dehydration. Exposure can kill you as easily as a knife.”

The tributes all nodded, some of them eagerly. The high-district tributes were eager to go for the equipment.

“You may begin,” Zorai said.

Everyone scattered. The tributes from District 1 went straight to the sword fighting station. Nitya joined the line for the Gauntlet. Lartius passed Eunia as she went for the maces. Rendwick followed Lartius in the line for the rings course. The male tribute from District 6 was already on it.

Rendwick’s eyes darted back and forth between the tribute from Six on the course and Lartius waiting in line. He noticed the tribute from Six was having trouble on the course. Apparently, he didn’t expect it to be so hard.

Lartius watched him on the course for a while, but his eyes began to wander around the gymnasium, searching for Rendwick. Seeing him again after ten years was somewhat exciting, despite the circumstance. His eyes swept the stations and the lines for the Gauntlet and rope course. Finally, he looked behind him. Rendwick was standing three people behind him in line.

Just as he found Rendwick behind him, the tribute from Six fell off the course. The sound roused Lartius. He was up on the course next. He rubbed his palms together.

Lartius jumped up and grabbed onto the rings and maneuvered his way down the bar. He was going much faster than the guy from Six was. Lartius had done this before, back at the Training Center. The course was different than the one back in District 2. But he finished it easily. He reached the end and dropped down on the floor. He dusted off his hands and walked off with an air of, “Okay. Next.” Rendwick suppressed a laugh. Lartius glanced back at Rendwick again as he walked off to the snare-setting station.

Rendwick knew Lartius was going there to wait for him. He just had to watch the three people in front of him try to go through the course before his turn came. The tributes before him were from Five, Nine, and Seven. The tribute from Five got pretty far before she fell off. The tributes from Nine and Seven didn’t even get to the halfway point, the guy from Seven landed badly on his ankle and limped away.

Finally, Rendwick had his turn. He jumped up, grabbed the rings, and made his way down the bars. Lartius certainly made it look a lot easier than it was. Rendwick assumed he trained on a similar course in District 2. It took him a while and his hand slipped a couple times, but Rendwick made it to the end with out falling off.

Rendwick wrung out his hands a little and looked over at the snare-setting station. Lartius was still there, the instructor teaching him how to make a rope trap that can hoist a tribute up in the air by their ankle. He went over to join them.

“Tie it tighter,” the instructor said. “It keeps coming loose.”

Rendwick noticed Lartius was having trouble with the knot. He knelt down next to him.

“Here, I got it,” Rendwick said, tightening the knot properly for him.

Lartius looked up at him. “Thanks.”

“You’ve tied knots before?” the instructor asked Rendwick.

“Yeah. My mom taught me how to weave nets to catch fish,” Rendwick said.

Another few tributes came to the station, so the instructor went to go help them.

“It’s been a while,” Rendwick said, sitting more comfortably next to Lartius.

“Yeah, it has,” Lartius replied. “It’s been, what, ten years?”

Rendwick nodded. “I wish we’d kept in touch.”

“I tried,” Lartius said. “I asked my teacher how, but she said I wasn’t allowed to keep in contact with someone from another district.”

“That’s what my teacher told me when I asked her.”

“I don’t know why, though,” Lartius said. “We were eight. What’s the worst we could’ve done by keeping in touch?”

“Who knows?” Rendwick tightened the knot again. “You know, you made that rings course look really easy.”

Lartius smiled. “There’s one at the Training Center back home. It was one of the things I was best at. That, hand-to-hand combat, knife throwing, and the obstacle course.”

“Like the one here?” Rendwick asked, jerking his head in the direction of the Gauntlet.

“Not exactly,” Lartius replied. “I didn’t really expect there to be exact replicas of the courses from back home.”

“I guess that makes sense. They wanna keep us on our toes.”

Lartius nodded. “What about you?”

“I was the strongest and fastest in my class, but I wish they trained me to work with a trident.”

“A trident?” Lartius repeated.

“I’ve been using one since I was twelve. My mentor says they won’t have any here, so I have to make do with a spear.”

“Well, you have to take what you can get.”

“You any good at hand-to-hand combat and knife throwing?” Rendwick asked.

Lartius grinned. “You’ll find out.”

Rendwick looked over at Nitya. She had moved to the sword-fighting station with the tributes from One.

“You teaming up with the girl from your district in the arena?” Rendwick asked Lartius.

Lartius looked at Eunia, who was eyeing Nitya and the tributes from One. “I don’t think so. She likes to do things her way.” He looked back at Rendwick. “What about you?”

“Doesn’t look like it,” Rendwick replied. “She’s looking to team up with District 1.”

“And you’re not?” Lartius asked. “Frankly, I’ve been wanting to team up with you since I saw the Reaping videos. Before I even remembered who you were. And what about you?”

“I don’t think District 1 is interested in teaming up with me,” Lartius said simply.

Rendwick looked at the tributes from One and back to Lartius, confused. “Why wouldn’t they want you and your knife throwing or hand-to-hand combat?”

“I don’t really look the part of a deadly tribute,” Lartius replied, a tone of bitterness in his voice.

“What?”

“Well, look at me. I’m five-foot-seven, and I don’t turn eighteen for another three months. All the guys and most of the girls in the Training Center are bigger than me.”

Rendwick raised his eyebrows. “Well, the way I look at it, if they’re arrogant enough to think that you can’t contend with them, they’ve unknowingly given you an advantage.”

Lartius pondered Rendwick’s words. He nodded, a small smile forming on his face.

At 12:30, Zorai blew her whistle. Rendwick and Lartius looked up from the fire making station. “Weapons down, everyone. Lunch is being served in the dining room down the hall.”

Lartius and Rendwick dropped the twigs and matches and headed for the door.

“You know, we never did finish that sandcastle,” Lartius said, grinning.


Rendwick couldn’t believe it, but he was actually enjoying himself training for the Games. Lartius made it seem more fun and less like he was about to face imminent death. He spent the rest of the first training day helping Lartius with his knots, and in return, Lartius kept him on his toes when they trained at the fighting stations. He didn’t want to admit it to Lartius, but he too had underestimated his abilities. He wondered what went on at the Training Center in District 2. However, he liked that Lartius kept surprising him with how well he trained. It made him want to train harder.

Lartius felt similarly about Rendwick. He was very good at a lot of the fighting, and it made Lartius work harder. They were both aiming for the same thing: a high training score from the Gamemakers on the third day.

“Any idea who you want to team up with in the arena?” Brutus asked them at dinner.

“Yeah,” Lartius answered, nodding. “I’ve got an idea.”

Brutus nodded in approval. “Eunia?”

Eunia glanced down at her plate. “I don’t know yet,” she mumbled. “Maybe I’ll figure it out tomorrow.”

Lartius knew she was lying. He saw her with the tributes from One all afternoon. Since they were being trained separately, they were doing their best to keep their strategies to themselves. Usually, Eunia’s way to do that was to pretend like Lartius wasn’t in the room.

Lartius and Eunia didn’t really know each other back home. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. He didn’t really consider it a betrayal that Eunia asked to be trained on her own. It actually suited him as much as it did her. But given that they were from the same district and trained for the Games in the same Tribute Training Center, most people would assume that they would be allies.

Lartius didn’t really mind that Eunia was keeping her distance. He felt it was best, so they wouldn’t get too attached to each other.

The Training

On the second day of training, Lartius and Rendwick continued to stick together. They decided to try and learn each other’s best skill and gain a little versatility. They had done some sword fighting and archery the day before, so they started at hand-to-hand combat. Rendwick was good at that back home, so it wasn’t too difficult. He knew how to strike, deflect, and dodge. He knew how to pin his opponent on the floor.

“Do you want to spar?” the instructor asked Rendwick.

“Yeah, that’ll help,” Rendwick replied, nodding.

The instructor called over one of the assistants. Lartius watched from the side. The assistant put pads on his hands where Rendwick could strike. It was a bit like sparring target practice.

“Ready?” the instructor asked both of them.

Rendwick and the assistant nodded.

“And begin.”

The assistant attacked first, his hand swung out at Rendwick’s face. He ducked and struck back. He threw a few hard punches and managed to avoid getting hit with the pads. They went back and forth, but not close enough for Rendwick to pin him down yet. Rendwick always enjoyed sparring in hand-to-hand combat. It was challenging enough for him to keep him interested, and the more he practiced, the simpler it became for him. Sparring, to him, was like swimming. You could never forget how to do it, even if you stopped doing it for a really long time.

Rendwick moved back a little, making the assistant move forward as his arm swung out towards Rendwick’s face. Rendwick deflected the blow, caught hold of the arm, and flipped the assistant over and onto the ground. He knelt over him, pinning his wrists to the ground.

“Nice job,” the instructor said. Rendwick stood and helped the assistant back on his feet.

“Nice,” Lartius commented, high-fiving Rendwick as he walked off.

“Thanks,” Rendwick said. “You going up?”

Lartius nodded. The instructor waved him over to face the assistant. Lartius shook his hands out a little to get the blood flowing.

“Ready?” the instructor asked both of them.

Lartius and the assistant nodded.

“And begin.”

Lartius attacked first. He struck once, twice, three times, four times on the assistant’s pads. He ducked when the assistant struck at him and threw some more fast punches. He deflected a few strikes, and threw a few more hard punches. He moved a lot, going forward and backwards, and feinting going to the side. It looked like he was boxing. Rendwick was impressed again. Lartius was more aggressive than he had been. He moved so quickly, he had the assistant pinned to the floor much quicker than Rendwick had. I think he surprised the assistant a little.

Lartius helped the assistant back on his feet and walked back to Rendwick.

“That was awesome,” Rendwick said.

“Thanks,” Lartius replied.

“Any advice to give me?” Rendwick asked. Lartius smiled a little, but hesitated.

“Don’t sugarcoat it, lay it on me,” Rendwick encouraged.

“All right,” Lartius said. “Well, you definitely can do this second nature, but I kind of feel like you’re holding back a little. Just be more aggressive.”

Rendwick nodded. “Got it. More aggressive.”

Lartius glanced around the gymnasium. “What do you wanna do next?”

“Um…” Rendwick looked around at the various stations. He was still full of adrenaline. He wanted to keep moving around. He noticed the line for the Gauntlet was short. “Do you wanna try the Gauntlet?”

“Sure,” Lartius said, nodding.

The two of them went to stand behind the one person in line for the Gauntlet, the young girl from District 7. The guy from District 7 was on the course already. He was having a hard time heaving himself onto the next platform and trying to avoid the swing of the padded club. Rendwick assumed that the ankle he hurt the day before was still hurting.

Rendwick heard loud laughter coming from his left. He looked over at the spear station. He saw the girl from District 2 chatting with the tributes from District 1. She kept looking over at him, until Rendwick realized she was looking at Lartius.

“What’s going on with the girl from your district?” Rendwick asked him.

Lartius looked over at Eunia and the tributes from One at the spear station. “She’s staying pretty quiet,” he replied. “Sometimes she acts like I don’t exist. It’s probably her way of focusing on the Games without any distractions. And she was playing coy at dinner last night, but I know she wants District 1 as allies. She used to be all eager and animated, but now she’s kind of shut down in front of me, since we’re being trained separately.”

“Yeah, same here,” Rendwick replied. “Sort of. We’re being trained separately, too. But when she was picked for the Games, she was kind of hard to read. She kept to herself mostly. Now, she’s become this bundle of energy. I’ve seen her go from station to station. But she ignores me, too.”

“I’m pretty sure they’ll stop ignoring us once we’re all in the arena,” Lartius said.

Rendwick cast a bitter look at Nitya, who was over at the axe station. “Yeah.”

The guy from Seven finally made it to the end of the course. He was panting as he sat against the wall, trying to catch his breath. The girl from Seven was given the signal to begin the course.

“How’s the obstacle course in District 2 compared to this?” Rendwick asked Lartius.

“Uh well, no one swings padded clubs at us,” Lartius replied, thinking back. “There are things shot across the course, like soft balls. That’s a little trickier because they come from all different angles and you never know when. I think the people swinging padded clubs make it easier to dodge because you can tell when it’s coming. And the platforms actually move.”

Rendwick nodded. “We don’t have an obstacle course at the Training Center back home. We do have a rope course, though.”

“Is it like the one here?” Lartius asked.

“Not exactly, but it’s similar,” Rendwick said. “It got trickier for me when I started getting taller.”

“Yeah, me too. A course like that is really for smaller, shorter people.”

The girl from Seven finished the course faster than her district partner. He still hadn’t quite caught his breath, so she went to help him up.

Rendwick nudged Lartius in the back. “You’re up.”

Smiling a little, Lartius looked over at the assistant who timed the tributes as they went on the course.

The assistant cleared her stopwatch.

“Ready?”

Lartius nodded.

“And go.”

As soon as she clicked her stopwatch, Lartius took off. Some of the dips in the course were too wide for him to jump over, so he had to jump down and then back up. He knew this was slowing him down, especially since he had the padded clubs to worry about, too. Instead of moving forward and backward to dodge the padded clubs, he moved to the side, further towards the middle of the course. He jumped from platform to platform before he made it to the halfway point of the course. He took a few breaths before he turned around and went for the second half of the course. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a padded club swing towards his calves. He jumped over the club and landed down on a lower platform. It felt odd to not have the platforms rise and fall. He heaved himself up and willed himself to keep going. He ducked another swinging club and made it to the end.

“And time,” the assistant said, clicking her stopwatch again. Lartius put his hands on his knees and lowered his head, trying to catch his breath. “Thirty-eight-point-five seconds.”

Lartius’ shoulders slumped. He shook his head. He could finish the course back home in just under thirty seconds. This course was supposed to be easier. Still breathing hard, he moved to the side of the gymnasium to watch Rendwick’s turn on the course, his back leaning against the wall.

The assistant cleared her stopwatch again. “Ready?” she asked Rendwick. He nodded. “And go.”

Rendwick took off like a bullet. Since he was taller, he could jump over the wider dips in the course. He jumped over the padded clubs like Lartius had. Lartius watched him leap from each platform, wishing he were taller. If he were, he would’ve finished the course faster.

Rendwick reached the midway point and continued down the other side of the course. The dip from the midway point to the next platform was too wide for him to jump over so he had to jump down. He took a while getting up to the next platform while dodging a hit from a club. Eventually, he was able to get back on his feet and keep going. He almost got hit a couple more times, but he made it to the end untouched.

“And time,” the assistant said, clicking her stopwatch again. “Thirty-six seconds flat.”

Panting a little, Rendwick nodded. Lartius followed him as he went over to the bow and arrows station.

“Nice,” Lartius said.

“You didn’t look happy with your time,” Rendwick noted.

“I’ve done better on the course at home. I didn’t expect the course here to be that hard.” Lartius chewed the inside of his cheek.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Rendwick said. “It’s a different course, you had to get used to it. I thought you were good.”

“I’m always kind of hard on myself, though,” Lartius replied. “I tend to be my own worst critic.”

This proved true the rest of the day. While they were shooting arrows and throwing axes the rest of the day, Lartius kept glancing back at the Gauntlet. He clearly wanted to try it again. And since he’d been on it once before, he was more prepared for it. He knew he could do better.

Fifteen minutes before the tributes were to be dismissed from the gymnasium, Lartius went for the Gauntlet again. Rendwick watched him from the camouflage station. The assistant cleared her stopwatch again and looked at Lartius to see if he was ready. The next second, he was off, charging down the course.

Lartius was taking a different approach to the course this time. He jumped a lot more instead of climbing over the taller platforms. He leapt over two or three platforms to get to the midway point. He was starting to lose his breath a little so he tried to save his energy so he wouldn’t lose steam towards the end. He continued down the second half of the course, leaping up and down the platforms, jumping over the padded clubs before he made it to the end. Rendwick saw the assistant give Lartius his time. He couldn’t hear what it was, but he saw Lartius nodding, so he assumed it was an improvement.

“Well?” Rendwick asked Lartius when he came back to the camouflage station.

“Thirty-five-point-seven,” Lartius replied. “At least it was better.”

On their final day of training, Lartius and Rendwick had to find a way to divide their time between a few stations. They didn’t have as much time as they did the last couple of days. They could train the rest of the morning, and then they would be called in one by one after lunch for their private session. Rendwick had no idea what to show the Gamemakers. Lartius had his hand-to-hand combat and knife throwing. Rendwick was solid at pretty much everything, but he didn’t have a standout skill.

When they went off to the spear station, Rendwick felt at a disadvantage. He was so used to a trident. The spear had a very different feel to it. A spear wasn’t for skewering, like a trident. You were supposed to throw it. He was good at that. He didn’t always get it right in the middle of the target, but he was decent. But Hyssop had told him at breakfast that morning that he could use the spear like a trident. They were more or less the same tool, just with one blade instead of three.

Lartius was working well with the instructor. He had good aim. Rendwick was kind of excited to see how well he would do when they got to throwing knives later.

Rendwick’s eye caught a glimpse of the fighting station across the gymnasium. The male tribute from District 5 was working with a bo staff. The instructor was teaching him how to strike from different angles. He looked back at the spear in his hand. It wasn’t as thin as the bo staff, but it wasn’t really that heavy either. And with a blade on the end, it was deadlier than a bo staff.

Rendwick smiled. He was pretty good with a bo staff back at the Training Center at home. If he could combine his spear/ trident skills and his bo staff skills, he would have something to show the Gamemakers that afternoon.

Rendwick and Lartius lost count of how many spears they threw before they decided they were done. Rendwick checked the time on the clock above the Gamemaker’s balcony. They had about an hour and a half before lunch. That would given them more than enough time to practice with the bo staffs and throwing knives.

“Where do you wanna go next?” Lartius asked.

“I was thinking we should try something a little different,” Rendwick said.

“Like what?”

“Like working with a bo staff.” Rendwick pointed to the station across from the spears.

Lartius pressed his lips together.

“What?” Rendwick asked.

“Bo staffs were always the thing I was worst at in the Training Center back home.”

“Well, there’s no harm in practicing, is there?”

Lartius sighed a little heavily. “Guess not.”

The guy from Five was gone when they came over to the station. The instructor waved them over.

“Welcome. Go pick a bo staff. Make sure it’s a little taller than you are.”

As they went to pick their bo staffs, Rendwick remembered how the spear he’d just used was shorter than him. He would just have to adjust.

“One important detail to keep in mind,” the instructor said, “is your stance. You don’t want your feet to close together, because if someone tries to knock you down, you won’t be stable on your feet. You need to spread your feet, and bend your knees. Plant your feet firmly on the ground.” He spread his legs shoulder width apart and bent his knees. He pulled his fists in on either side of his ribs. Lartius and Rendwick copied him. “This is called a horse stance.” He put one leg behind him, so he was lunging forward a little. “This is called a long stance. It’s used a lot more in battle than the horse stance.”

The instructor picked up his own bo staff. “All right, I’m gonna teach you this trick. This applies to different weapons, not just a bo staff. It works with a sword and a spear, too.” He approached Rendwick. “Here, hold it like this,” he said, fixing Rendwick’s grip on the staff so he was holding it horizontally with his hands spread. The instructor held his the same way, only vertically. “If you’re struggling with someone and they’re putting all their weight on you…” The instructor pushed his bo staff against Rendwick’s. Rendwick immediately put his left foot behind him to keep himself from falling backwards. “… you’ll want to put your weight on the leg that’s behind you.” The instructor looked down at Rendwick’s feet. Rendwick obliged, and put his weight on his back leg. “You’re not trying to push them back, see? You’re trying to keep them at bay while they’re putting all their weight on you.” Rendwick nodded. “Then afterwards, you can just move out of the way and all the weight they’ve been putting on you will cause them to just fall over.”

The instructor stepped back and lead them to a long, large sandbag hanging from the ceiling. “Because the bo staff is light, it gives you mobility. It’s easy to maneuver so you can strike from different angles.” He turned the bo staff in his palm and struck the left side of the sandbag, then the right.

The instructor stepped back. “Give it a shot.” He gestured Rendwick towards the sandbag.

Rendwick assumed his long stance in front of the sandbag. He twisted the bo staff and struck left, right, left again. He took it up a notch and continued to strike, moving around the bag. He turned towards his back leg and struck from behind a couple times. When he made a full circle, he stepped back and stabbed the sandbag with the staff.

Lartius watched him with raised eyebrows.

“You stabbed the bag,” Lartius noted.

“Yeah,” Rendwick said, straightening up. “Now just imagine the bo staff was a spear.”

Lartius nodded slowly. “Sounds pretty awesome.” A slow smile formed on his face. “Is that why you wanted to work here?”

“Yeah. When I work with the actual spear, I just have to keep my hands away from the blade.”

“You just have to make sure you get one in the arena,” Lartius said. He was looking over Rendwick’s shoulder. Rendwick turned around. The guy from One was back at the spear station. He’d gone from station to station the past two days but he had always stopped at the spears at least once a day.

Lartius took his turn on the sandbag. Truth be told, he wasn’t really that bad, but he wasn’t spectacular with a bo staff. The instructor helped him strike from different angles, since that seemed to be his biggest issue. Lartius was putting effort into it, but Rendwick could tell he just wanted to move on. The two of them managed to politely cut their session short and move on to knife throwing.

Rendwick was strangely excited to go to the knife throwing station. If he had to pick his weakness, it would be knife throwing. He really just wanted to watch Lartius. He hadn’t seen him in action yet.

There weren’t many people at the station, so they jumped right in line. The instructor had set up the human-shaped targets and a table set with knives of various sizes and shapes.

Lartius went right up to the table and picked out a few knives. A few short ones, a few longer ones. He held each of them individually to get used to the feel and weight of each knife. The targets all rearranged themselves as Lartius cracked his neck from side to side. Rendwick grinned.

Lartius threw his knives at each of them as they lit up one by one. He threw the shorter knives by the blade and the longer ones by the handle. Each of them landed right in the middle of each bull’s-eye. He was even able to throw with his arm swinging across the air, like a backhand.

Rendwick’s smile widened. Now that he saw Lartius’ hand-to-hand combat and knife throwing skills, he could say, without a doubt, that Lartius was a force to be reckoned with.

After Lartius used up all the knives (and gotten them in all the bull’s-eyes), Rendwick was up. He wasn’t terrible at throwing knives. He knew how much force to put behind the knives to make them go as far as he wanted. But he could never quite get it right in the bull’s-eye. He’d always just miss. Bows and arrows were slightly easier, because he could see the arrow better than a knife.

When they were done, Lartius kept shooting glances back at the station. He clearly wanted to go again.

“Do you wanna split up until lunch?” Rendwick suggested. He himself was itching to go back to the bo staffs.

Lartius nodded, smiling a little. “All right. See you later.”

Lartius rejoined the line for knife throwing, and Rendwick went back to the bo staff station. He decided to work with a smaller bo staff so he would be more used to a spear in his private session. It was odd, seeing as he was so used to a taller bo staff, but he made it work.

Over at the knives, Lartius was back in front of the targets. He loved throwing knives. It was challenging for him, and actually the thing he was scared of most when he was younger. Once he got the hang of it, his trainers at home worked with him to improve his aim and precision. He didn’t miss a single bull’s-eye.

It took a while but Rendwick adjusted well to the shorter bo staff. He treated it like a spear, slashing the air a few times and stabbing the sandbag in between strikes. He was completely in his own world, but he was brought back to Earth by the sound of Zorai’s whistle.

“Weapons down, everyone,” she said loudly. “Lunch is being served. In about an hour, your names will be called back in here one by one for your private sessions.”

Rendwick put the bo staff back with the rest and joined Lartius as they walked to the dining room. Lartius had his hands in his pockets.

“You okay?” Rendwick asked him.

“Yeah,” Lartius replied. “Just a little anxious for my private session.”

“Are you kidding?” Rendwick said incredulously. “You’re fantastic. You’re gonna do great.”

Lartius smiled a little. “Thanks.”

The Scores

The tributes all entered the dining room. The girls from Two and Four joined the tributes from One at their table. They had an air of superiority about them as they sat haughtily at their table. Most of the other tributes sat by themselves. Rendwick and Lartius were the only other people sitting together. There were carts around the room, full of lamb chops, chicken, a few different kinds of soup, fruit, cheese, and bread.

The last couple of days during lunch, they got the chance to catch up with each other. They avoided talking about their families as much as they could, since it brought up painful memories. But with a few minutes left of lunch that day, their families were all they had left to talk about.

“You still an only child?” Rendwick asked.

“No, not anymore,” Lartius said. “My brother Jax is seven now.”

“Yeah, I have a younger sibling, too. Thonia’s eight months old.”

“Oh, cool.” Rendwick stared into his drink.

“You miss her,” Lartius said. “Yeah,” Rendwick replied. “I helped raise her, you know.”

“I know how you feel. I was ten when Jax was born. I watched him grow up.”

“I don’t think I’ll get to do that,” Rendwick said in a low voice, staring back into his drink.

Lartius couldn’t think of anything to say. He was almost glad that a voice rang out in the dining room, calling the female tribute from District 1 back into the gymnasium for her private session.

Lartius was rarely nervous. But he noticed his nerves were working overtime now that he was in the Games.

“You nervous?” Lartius asked Rendwick.

Rendwick shrugged. “Not really. Not since I figured out what I’m gonna show the Gamemakers. You?”

Lartius was chewing the inside of his cheek again. He didn’t answer.

“Hey, come on,” Rendwick said sympathetically. “What I saw you do the last couple of days in there,” he pointed in the direction of the gymnasium, “was awesome. In fact, I was kind of hoping we could be allies in the arena.”

Lartius looked up. “Yeah?”

Rendwick nodded. “You in?”

“Definitely.”

Lartius felt flattered. He thought Rendwick was very skilled, more skilled than he was. Rendwick wanted him as an ally, not any of the other high-district tributes.

The voice called for the guy from District 1. He rose from his table and strutted his way out to the gymnasium.

“What are we gonna do about them?” Lartius asked, jerking his head at the door.

“We’re gonna have to watch our backs,” Rendwick replied. “I’ve seen a few glimpses of what they can do. Chances are they’ll be the toughest to take down. But we’ll see what happens after all the scores are announced tonight.”

“They’re gonna score in the eight to ten range, though,” Lartius said. “You know it, I know it.”

Rendwick drummed his fingers on the table. “Do you remember if anyone’s gotten hurt before the Games? Like really hurt?”

“What, like broken limbs or something?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t think so.”

“What do you think would happen if someone did get that hurt?”

“No idea. It’d probably hurt their chances in the arena.”

“You’d think they’d send them into the arena with a broken limb?”

“They’ve never replaced a tribute between the Reapings and the Games. By the time the scores are up, everyone knows the tributes’ names and faces.”

Rendwick gave something halfway between a nod and a shrug. He momentarily forgot that people considered the Games to be entertainment.

Eunia’s name was called. She got up from the table, leaving the girl from Four by herself.

Lartius fell silent. He was up after Eunia.

“Is there any point in trying to convince you to not be nervous?” Rendwick asked.

Lartius shook his head. “No.” He rested his cheek in his palm. “I told you, I’m really critical of myself.”

“You don’t have a routine or a system or something to help calm the nerves?”

Lartius nodded. “I just have to keep going through all my training in my head. I’ve done this a hundred times. If I can just do it like I’m training, I’ll be fine.”

“Well, at least you’re staying positive,” Rendwick said. “Ish.”

Lartius laughed a little.

Rendwick looked him in the eye. “You’re gonna do great. I know it.”

Lartius looked up at him. Rendwick smiled at him encouragingly. Lartius returned it. They just looked at each other for a few seconds. For Lartius, it felt like much longer. He’d never had eye contact with another person like this before. He also noticed Rendwick’s eyes for the first time, a very nice green. Without realizing, Lartius was getting lost in his eyes.

Lartius’ name was called. He took a deep breath got up from the table.

“Good luck,” Rendwick said to him.

“Thanks,” Lartius replied. “You, too.”

Lartius walked out of the dining room and down to the gymnasium. He did his best to regulate his breathing and keep himself calm. The gate to the gymnasium rose and he walked inside.

It was odd seeing the gymnasium empty. All the equipment was there, and the only people were the Gamemakers up in their balcony. There were a few assistants on the sidelines, there to help arranged the equipment or to face off in hand-to-hand combat.

Lartius took another deep breath. Most of the Gamemakers were talking amongst themselves, but the rest were looking expectedly at him, waiting for him to start. A few more fell silent and eventually all eyes were on him.

Lartius looked over at the assistants. One of them walked over, the one he and Rendwick sparred with yesterday.

“You need a partner?”

“Yeah,” Lartius replied.

The assistant put on his pads. “Whenever you’re ready.”

Lartius nodded. He took a few more deep breaths. He cracked his knuckles. Then, his hands slowly formed into fists and he attacked. He struck once, twice, three times, ducking and dodging every swing from the pads. He moved around a lot, feinting to the left and right. When the assistant was close enough, he flipped him onto the ground and pinned him down.

As he helped him up, Lartius looked over at the Gamemakers, watching him closely.

“Let’s go again,” Lartius said to the assistant.

The assistant nodded obligingly. The hand-to-hand combat was the easy part for Lartius. He took the assistant down an additional three times before he let him go. He didn’t know how much time he had left in his session. He wanted to be able to show everything he could.

He walked to the knife throwing station. As he picked out his knives, the targets rearranged themselves. He sized up his targets and threw his knives one by one. Like in training that morning, he got all of them in the bull’s-eyes. After he used up all the knives, he retrieved them from the targets and went again.

Although he knew in the back of his mind that the Gamemakers were watching him, Lartius had stopped noticing their presence. He was too focused to get distracted by their reactions. He threw all the knives again, hitting the center of each bull’s-eye again.

“Thank you,” the Head Gamemaker, Hammil Dunbryll, said to Lartius. “You are dismissed.”

Lartius nodded and left the gymnasium.


It felt like hours before Rendwick’s name was called. He didn’t know how long his private session was supposed to be. Since he was showing the Gamemakers one thing, he had to make it count. He couldn’t rush through it.

As soon as he walked into the gymnasium, he shook off some of his nerves and went for the spears. He was dimly aware of how quiet it became when he walked in. He knew the Gamemakers were all watching him intently.

He twirled the spear in his hand like a bo staff as he went to the bo staff station and positioned himself in front of one of the sandbags. He took a deep breath and assumed his long stance. He struck to the left, right, left, right, turned on his back foot and struck from behind. He even threw a few sharp roundhouse kicks and back kicks. Instead of slashing the air, like he’d done before lunch, he decided to slash and stab the sandbag. He eventually moved onto every bag at the bo staff station, cutting deep gashes into each of them after a few dozen strikes. Without even thinking, he slashed one final gash into the last sandbag in the station, then turned on his back leg, and threw the spear across the gymnasium. It landed right in the middle of the bull’s-eye of one of the targets in the spear station.

He stood up and stared at it from across the gymnasium. It was a split-second decision to throw the spear. He didn’t know why, and he didn’t expect it to actually land right in the middle.

“Thank you,” Hammil Dunbryll said to Rendwick. “You may go.”

Rendwick nodded and left the gymnasium, his heart pounding a little. That went by very fast. Although he felt proud of what he’d done, he wondered if he showed them enough.


Lartius kept glancing at the television screen in their suite all throughout dinner. He knew he had done the best he could in his private session, but the Gamemakers still had their final say. Brutus and Lyme had questioned him and Eunia about their sessions. They both said their sessions went well, but didn’t get into great detail around each other. After dinner, Lartius, Eunia, Brutus, Lyme, Tayena, and Dorache all gathered around the screen to wait for the scores to be announced.

Sitting on the couch, Lartius pulled his knees into his chest. He was not only nervous for himself, but curious about how Rendwick did. Finally, the screen lit up. Colored pixels arranged themselves on the screen and an image slowly formed in the shape of Claudius Templesmith to announce the scores.

“Good afternoon,” Claudius said. “Today, the twenty-four tributes had their private session with the Gamemakers. The Gamemakers have assessed their abilities after three days in the Training Center, and awarded them a score ranging from one to twelve, one being the weakest tribute and twelve being the strongest.”

Lartius felt Eunia perk up in her seat next to him on the couch. She’d come back from her private session all smiles, so she was clearly expecting a high score.

Claudius brandished his sheet of paper he’d gotten from the Gamemakers. “From District 1,” he began, “Phox Baxwoll, a score of 10.”

Not surprising. He had switched from spears to swords all throughout day two of training. The dummies he practiced on were in pieces at the end of the first two days of training.

“And Volumnia Roxen, a score of 9.”

Again not surprising. He didn’t really pay attention to her in the Training Center, but she was from District 1. She was trained to win the Games, just like Lartius and Eunia were.

“From District 2, Lartius Rankine.”

He sat up straight in his seat.

“A score of 10.”

Lartius let out a breath. Brutus proudly clapped him on the back.

“And Eunia Allardyce, a score of 9.”

Eunia raised her eyebrows indignantly. She clearly expected at least the same score as Lartius, if not higher. Brutus and Lyme proudly complimented her, but she just sank back into her seat, crossing her arms, glaring at the TV.

“From District 3, Alto Whishart, a score of 9.”

Lartius raised his eyebrows. District 3 tributes usually never scored this high in training. Despite being a top four district, Three never quite had the success that One, Two, and Four had. Lartius wasn’t sure if District 3 even had a Tribute Training Center.

“And Fannia Lapworth, a score of 5.” Lartius tried to rack his brains and recall how she did in the Training Center. He recognized her face, but he couldn’t remember what she did most in training. Everyone else in the room had started talking with each other, ignoring the other scores that were coming up.

“From District 4, Rendwick Combe.”

Lartius’ attention returned to the screen.

“A score of 10.”

Lartius nodded in approval. They’d made a good team in the arena.

“And Nitya Flamsteed, a score of 10.”

After District 4, the scores were pretty mediocre. But a few did score sevens, and the female tribute from Twelve scored an eight.

For the most part, the scores were to see where each tribute stacked up. Those with higher scores had more sponsors. Sometimes, the scores were a way of showing how likely they were to be killed. The tributes with higher scores were targeted first, as they were deemed threats. But a group of tributes that scored 9’s and 10’s were pretty lethal.

Day by day, Lartius was more and more eager to get into the arena with Rendwick.

The Interviews

When Rendwick woke up the next morning, his mind was, for some reason, back in the dining room before the private sessions started. He had no idea why. He knew he dreamed last night, but he didn’t know about what. All he knew was that when he woke up, his mind traveled back to right before Lartius’ name was called for his session.

As he showered, got dressed, and went to breakfast, he tried to put that out of his mind (at least for the time being). Tonight was the interviews. Mags was going to work with Rendwick all day to figure out how to present him to the people of Panem. He’d seen the past District 4 tributes at their interviews. They were portrayed as confident, determined, and vicious. Since Zhenya deemed him a “warrior of the sea” for the Tribute Parade, he assumed Mags would have a similar approach to his portrayal.

Their Capitol escort, Anya, was going to help both of them with their presentation for their interviews. Rendwick had no idea what Anya could possibly help him with for his interview. He assumed she would work with Nitya on how to compose herself like a lady from the Capitol. The girls were always supposed to be very poised. If he was a “warrior of the sea”, he wasn’t going to do the same. Thankfully, Rendwick was working with Mags before Anya.

After breakfast, Nitya went to her room to work with Anya. Mags and Rendwick went to the sitting room.

“So how’s this gonna work?” Rendwick asked.

“Well,” Mags began, “all the tributes try to appear likeable to gain sponsors. So far, they’ve only seen you at the Reaping and the Parade. You didn’t really show a lot of emotion. No one really knows who you are.”

Rendwick thought back to the Parade again, remembering how Mags and Hyssop told them not to even smile. “So I’m gonna be vicious and determined like the past District 4 tributes?” he asked.

“Not just that,” Mags replied. “Hyssop and I feel that tactic is getting a little stale. We need to keep people interested.” She looked sincerely at Rendwick. “You know what it’s like in District 4. How people cherish the bonds they make with other people, their friendships, their families. We’re gonna use some of that. While we’re gonna make you appear as a strong competitor, we also want to remind the people watching that you’re a human being, that you have feelings. Who do you feel most comfortable talking about, your friends or family?”

As he thought back to his friends at home, his mind immediately wandered back to Lartius in the dining room again. He tried to shake it off. They were just a pair of eyes. Why wouldn’t they get out of his head?

“My family,” Rendwick decided. “My parents and my little sister.”

Mags nodded.

“Caesar’s not just gonna stick to asking me about my family, though, is he?” Rendwick asked. “It’s the Hunger Games, after all.”

“Well, no, you’re right. Primarily, since you’re from District 4, he’s gonna ask you about how you’re feeling going into the arena, and things of that nature.”

Rendwick nodded. He was good at hiding his true emotions and spewing out things people wanted to hear. He would just lie his way through the interview. The only part where he would be honest would be when Caesar asked about his family.


Lartius woke up early that morning. He’d been doing that ever since he’d been in the Capitol. He would toss and turn on his bed, trying to get a few more minutes of sleep, but it was hopeless.

He could imagine what it would be like in his house during his interview tonight. His parents would watch him proudly while Jax sat directly in front of the screen, watching him with pride and admiration. He knew Jax was already bragging to his friends about the ten his older brother scored in his private session. Lartius could practically hear him say, “He’s gonna win. You’ll see.”

He showered, got dressed, and went down to breakfast. He found Brutus and Lyme already there, talking with their Capitol escort, Meriel. Brutus looked up when he heard him come in and gestured him over to join them.

“Sit down,” he said to Lartius. Lartius sat down opposite him at the table. “We were just discussing ways to present you at your interview.”

“We’re gonna start right now?” Lartius asked.

“I’m just letting you know what the game plan is for today,” Brutus explained. “I can’t say too much since Eunia’s gonna be up soon. You’ll work with Meriel this morning on interview presentation, then after lunch we’ll work on content.”

Lartius nodded.

“And anyway, I figured you’d probably want to eat first,” Brutus added, handing him a basket of rolls.

Lartius took the basket from him, smiling a little. Eunia showed up a few minutes later. Brutus filled her in on today’s plan, and the rest of the meal was eaten in a comfortable silence. Eunia seemed in much better spirits than last night. Lartius suspected she accepted the score the Gamemakers gave her. Her determination had returned and she seemed more animated and eager to get into the arena. After breakfast, Lartius and Meriel went to his room to work on his interview presentation.

“How is this gonna work?” Lartius asked her.

“We’re going to work together on your posture, how you carry yourself, and how you answer questions,” Meriel answered.

“I thought I was working with Brutus on the questions,” Lartius objected.

“You’re working with him on content, how you’re going to word your answers,” Meriel explained. “With me, you’re going to practice on delivering your answers. The tone, the inflection.”

Meriel had him walk confidently around the room for a while, to practice walking from backstage to the seat onstage where Caesar Flickerman would be. She even encouraged him to strut a little. He felt kind of silly just pacing back and forth in his room.

Afterwards, Meriel had him work on his posture, since he tended to slouch when he was sitting down. “Perk up in your chair,” she kept saying. Eye contact and smiling were fine. He was likeable and friendly. He would have no problem answering Caesar’s questions tonight.

When their four hours were up, he and Meriel went back to the dining room for lunch. Eunia, Lyme, and Brutus were already there. Lartius could sense that Eunia was in a bad mood. He wondered what had gone on in her session with Lyme.


Rendwick’s session with Mags went swimmingly. She asked him questions similar to the ones the reporters asked him and Nitya when they made their way to the train after the Reaping; how he felt about his chances in the arena, how pleased he was with the score the Gamemakers gave him, how he was enjoying his stay in the Capitol. Rendwick gave pretty much cookie-cutter responses to those questions. High-district tributes always talked about how eager they were to get into the arena and said very complementary things about the Capitol. He was glad Mags was adding a little twist to it.

When it came time to talk about his family, Rendwick did his best to keep a straight face all while speaking fondly about his parents and sister. He tried not to think about his family too much in the Capitol. It always seemed to create a lump in his throat. Mags asked him if he wanted to stop, but he said no.

After their session finished, they went to lunch. They noticed tension in the air as they walked into the dining room to join Nitya, Hyssop, and Anya. Nitya and Anya were being exceedingly polite to each other.

“Everything going all right?” Mags asked as she sat down.

“Fine,” Nitya and Anya answered in unison. The undertones of their voices suggested otherwise.

Mags looked at Hyssop. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” Hyssop answered. “Just a little difference of opinion.”

“She called me frail,” Nitya snapped, glaring at Anya. “I scored a ten in my private session, I’m not frail!”

“Then why didn’t I see this side of you?” Anya asked. “You were stumbling around in heels, you didn’t maintain eye contact, and you barely smiled.”

“I’m not going to fit into your idea that girls all have to be well-behaved and smile prettily,” Nitya shot back hotly. “This is the Hunger Games. It involves skill, intelligence, wit, quick thinking, and mental toughness. It has nothing to do with how you look.”

“Okay, easy,” Hyssop said to Nitya. “You’re right. The Hunger Games is a very serious thing, but if people didn’t care what the tributes looked like, they wouldn’t have the interviews, or even the Tribute Parade. The stylists wouldn’t play a part in the Games at all. There would be training, secluded from the rest of the world, then they’d just throw you into the arena. The Games are broadcast on a visual medium. Looks play an important role.”

Nitya stared at her plate, shaking her head slightly. “I just don’t want people to think I’m some shallow, girly princess-type character. That’s not who I am.”

“Well, you still need to be able to walk in heels and smile at the crowd,” Anya interjected.

Nitya’s head snapped in Anya’s direction and she began to move in her seat.

“Sit down, Nitya,” Hyssop said firmly.

She looked at him and sat back down in her chair. “I’m just glad the morning session’s over.”

Anya glared at her but didn’t respond. Rendwick felt a little nervous about his own session with Anya now. Hopefully, they wouldn’t disagree on much.


Lartius could tell Eunia was not looking forward to her session with Meriel. She didn’t seem like a ladylike kind of girl. He knew they were gonna butt heads a little bit. Brutus and Lartius went to the sitting room to work on his interview content.

“You’ve seen the interviews on television before,” Brutus said as he and Lartius sat down on the sofa. “Caesar always tries to make each tribute comfortable and likeable in the eyes of the audience.”

Lartius nodded.

“For the most part, he’s gonna ask you about the Games,” Brutus said, “what it’s been like in the Capitol, how you feel going into the arena, what you think of the score the Gamemakers gave you, that kind of stuff.”

Lartius nodded again. Those sounded like easy questions. He remembered the reporters at the train station asked the same kind of thing after the Reaping.

“Then, he’s gonna veer off-topic. Probably once, maybe twice, just to remind the audience you’re an actual person, too. Are there any questions you’d like to be off-limits?” Brutus asked.

Lartius shook his head. “No. I have nothing to hide.”

Brutus nodded. “So you’re willing to talk about your family and friends at home?”

“Yeah. I know my brother would want me to talk about him a little during my interview,” Lartius replied, smiling a little.

“The trouble with this is figuring out how to present you,” Brutus went on. “Everyone expects the same kind of tributes to come out of District 2, the tough, rugged, vicious kind of tributes. There are a lot of people who were surprised you scored a ten in training.”

Lartius pressed his lips together. “I hate that people underestimate me like that. I trained the same amount of hours in Training Center at home as everyone else. I don’t think anyone was surprised that the guys from One and Four scored tens, or that Eunia and the girls from One and Four scored nines and tens.”

Brutus raised his eyebrows a little. “We could work with that. You’re as determined and competitive as the past District 2 tributes, but since no one else thinks so, you have something to prove.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much how I felt after the Reaping. I kind of got the sense that people underestimated me, but they were curious to see how well I’d do in the arena.”

“That’s great,” Brutus said. His enthusiasm rose. Lartius hadn’t seen that in him before. “We can go with that. It shows personality, and people will love that.”

Lartius nodded. As Brutus’ enthusiasm rose, so did Lartius’.

Watching the Games on television, he found the interviews boring, particularly when he was younger. He just wanted to see the action in the arena. Actually being a part of the Games was a lot different from watching it. There was a lot more put into the Games than he thought.


Rendwick’s four hours with Anya went by surprisingly fast. Anya had been a Capitol escort for District 4 for an undisclosed amount of years (she wouldn’t say how many - most Capitol citizens never revealed their true age). So she had seen them, as she said, “behind the scenes and in action! Some of them you can see developing personality as soon as they step onstage!” Her attitude towards the Games was the same as pretty much every Capitol citizen, but he refrained from saying anything about it. He suspected that Nitya had been very chatty that morning, which is what caused so many problems during her session.

Mostly, Anya had just showed him how to carry himself proudly and confidently. She also reminded him to smile a lot. Rendwick was so used to being stony-faced and not showing much emotion that his face started to hurt from smiling so much in one afternoon. But, again, he kept his mouth shut.

He was glad when his session was over and his prep team walked in. Anya excused herself from Rendwick’s room to let him get dressed. As they worked on him, Rendwick could only assume that this process took longer for girls, since they always looked so elaborately done. They had to look pretty. The guys just had to look clean and presentable.

It seemed like a couple hours passed before Zhenya arrived with his outfit for the interview. She’d made a very sleek suit in dark sea green with flecks of brown in the fabric. As he put it on, he noticed how striking it was.

Zhenya stood behind him, a wide smile on her face. Rendwick noticed she had a couple of gold teeth. “Look at you,” she said fondly. “See how the green accents your eyes?”

Rendwick nodded. Her smile made him smile in return. “It looks great. Thanks so much.”

“Are you ready for your interview?” Zhenya asked.

Rendwick nodded again.

“You’re not nervous?”

“No. I’ve seen Caesar interview tributes for years. He always tries to make them comfortable onstage in front of an audience.”

Zhenya had a proud smile on her face. “You’re going to be great.”

They left his room and went to ride down in the elevator with Ordoz, Nitya, Mags, and Hyssop. Nitya was dressed a little differently, unlike in the Tribute Parade. Instead, her gown fitted closely at the body then flowed down from mid-thigh. It was sea green with deep blue accents and a pattern of swirling blue jewels that reminded Rendwick of the shores at home in the summer.

When the elevator doors opened, the first person Rendwick saw was Lartius, in a shiny iron-gray suit. It reminded him of the armor-like costume he wore in the Tribute Parade. Aside from Lartius, there was also the girl from his district, as well as the tributes from One and Three. It took a while for the rest of the tributes to show up. Rendwick noticed that many of them were silent with nerves. They all stood in a single-file line, waiting for the interviews to start. There was a screen affixed to the wall so everyone could see what was happening onstage.

Finally, the lights onstage dimmed. Rendwick heard the familiar trumpeting music playing. From up onstage, a loud voice boomed out, “Ladies and gentlemen, your Master of Ceremonies, Caesar Flickerman!”

Caesar turned and flashed his winning smile at the crowd. Everyone applauded loudly. His hair had been dyed aquamarine for this year. Last year it was a very bright pink.

He got up from his seat. “Thank you, thank you! Welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome to the 43rd Annual Hunger Games!” The crowd broke into fresh applause. “Now, in about five minutes, they’re all going to be out here. All of the tributes you’ve heard about. Are you excited? Let me hear it!” The crowd clapped and cheered even louder.

Rendwick watched as one of the backstage crew went to the front of the line and brought the girl from District 1 to the side of the stage to wait for Caesar’s introduction.

“Let’s bring out the first tribute,” Caesar said, once the crowd had died down a little. “Please give a warm round of applause for Volumnia Roxen!”

The crowd cheered for Volumnia as she smiled and walked across the stage to greet Caesar. She was dressed in a shimmering pale gold gown with flecks of pink, her long blonde hair flowing down her shoulders. She shook Caesar’s hand, beamed at the crowd once more, and sat down in the empty seat onstage.

“My, my, you are stunning tonight!” Caesar remarked. “Just like in the Tribute Parade.”

“I have my stylist to thank for that,” Volumnia replied. She smiled up at the elevated seating unit, where all the stylists were. “I’ve loved everything he’s made for me. It’s all just perfect.”

“Who’s your stylist?” Caesar asked.

“Baldric.”

“Can we have Baldric stand up please?” Caesar called up to the elevated seating unit. The crowd clapped as one of the stylists stood up, bowed his head graciously, and sat back down.

“So I take it you’ve been enjoying your stay here in the Capitol,” Caesar said to Volumnia.

“It’s been amazing,” Volumnia gushed. “Everyone here is so nice, especially during the Tribute Parade. They’re just so into this. I love their enthusiasm.”

The crowd clapped again. Rendwick heard Nitya make a small noise of disgust. Volumnia seemed to be the type of girl Anya tried to turn her into, exactly what Nitya didn’t want to be.

“So, now,” Caesar said, bringing her attention back to him, “how do you feel going into the arena?”

“I’m very prepared,” she said confidently. The tone of her voice changed, but her smile stayed intact. “I’m a hard worker, I’m skilled, and I have a duty to my district. I will not let them down.”

Meanwhile, one of the backstage crew came back out and pulled the guy from One backstage with him. It was going to be a while before Rendwick got his turn. He leaned against the wall and put his hands in his jacket pockets.

Caesar nodded. “You have the confidence for it.”

“And the skill, too,” she added. “I did score a nine yesterday.”

“Well, we can’t wait to see how that nine plays out in the arena,” Caesar said with flourish. He took her hand and raised her from her seat. “Let’s have a hand for Volumnia!” he said to the audience.

Volumnia smiled at the crowd as they cheered and clapped for her. Caesar guided her to his right and she walked offstage.

“Wasn’t she charming?” Caesar asked the audience. There was a dull roar of assent and more applause. “Now, let’s bring out her male counterpart. Let’s have a hand for Phox Baxwoll!”

Phox was dressed in a dark gold suit. There was definitely an air of arrogance about him as he strutted across the stage to reach the empty seat.

“Welcome, welcome,” Caesar said. They shook hands and sat down.

“I think this is a first for the Hunger Games,” Caesar said. “I hear you used to be a citizen of the Capitol.”

Phox nodded. “Yep. But my dad is from District 1. His family was having some trouble there so we moved so he could help them.”

There was a murmur of interest among the audience. Rendwick was surprised at how normal he seemed compared to his menacing attitude in training. He seemed much less vicious and ruthless, even with his shaved head and muscular stature.

“How long did you live in the Capitol for?” Caesar asked.

“About seven years.”

“So, you’ve seen the Games as the rest of us here have. What’s it like to be on the other side?”

“It’s exhilarating. My friends and I used to play Hunger Games back when I lived in the Capitol. Now I can’t believe I’m actually in them for real.”

“What’s it like to be back here?”

“I definitely get waves of nostalgia, especially seeing people dress in these colors. I kind of forgot they did that.”

Caesar raised his eyebrows. “Bright colors aren’t your thing?”

“No. That’s why I did this.” He pointed to his bald head. “I don’t know how my parents did it, but for some reason my natural hair color is this bright canary yellow. I think it stands out too much, that’s why I shaved it off.”

“So you’re trying to blend into the arena?”

“If it helps me kill faster, then all the better.”

The audience clapped and cheered. Phox smiled smugly at them, soaking in the applause. Rendwick’s hands seemed to clench in the pockets of his jacket. He didn’t like Phox. There was something about him that chilled his blood and made it boil at the same time.

“I assume you’re eager to get into the arena, just like Volumnia?” Caesar tended to play off the district counterparts, mostly for the high-district tributes.

“Of course. Playing the Hunger Games when you’re young is one thing, but actually being in them is completely different. Much better.”

The audience started cheering again. One of the backstage crew pulled Eunia backstage with him. Lartius felt a little bit of nerves climb up his throat. He was going to get whisked away soon, too. He’d practiced his questions with Brutus, but they weren’t in front of cameras or a large audience.

“Well, we’re all looking forward to seeing this attitude in the arena. Am I right, folks?” Caesar stood and raised Phox’s hand in the air. “Phox Baxwoll, ladies and gentlemen!” The applause grew louder.

Phox walked offstage. Rendwick craned his neck to get a view of Lartius, four people in front of him in line.

“All right, one district down,” Caesar said. “Let’s move on to District 2 and give a warm welcome to Eunia Allardyce!”

Eunia walked across the stage in a shimmering white gown. Rendwick guessed they were going with a different approach that Lartius. She wasn’t beaming like Volumnia, but she didn’t look unfriendly. She politely shook Caesar’s hand and sat down. She crossed her legs under the chair and placed her hands on her knees.

“Well, you’re all-business, aren’t you?” Caesar noted.

“Only way I do things,” Eunia replied. Her smug smile was back in place. Lartius hadn’t seen it since the train ride to the Capitol.

“You seem confident and ready to go already,” Caesar remarked.

Eunia nodded. “Well, if I’m being honest, Caesar, I expected a higher training score. A ten, at the very least.”

Caesar raised his eyebrows. There was a murmur of surprise among the crowd. No one had ever criticized the training score they received. Lartius had the sense that this might’ve been what caused issues between her and Lyme during her morning session.

“You thought you deserved a ten?” Caesar asked.

“I know I deserved a ten,” Eunia replied indignantly. “I worked too hard and trained too hard to be given anything less.”

“Well, now you’re going in the arena with something to prove,” Caesar said, a grin forming on his face.

“Oh, you have no idea,” Eunia said. “Words cannot express how badly I want it to be tomorrow, so I can get into the arena.”

Caesar laughed with the audience.

Lartius knew Eunia’s interview was almost over. Feeling the nerves climbing back up, he chanced a glance behind him in line and found Rendwick’s face. Rendwick gave him a reassuring nod, and they managed to hold eye contact for a few seconds before one of the backstage crew came back and guided Lartius backstage with him.

“Well, I think I speak for this crowd when I say we love your fighting spirit,” Caesar said. The audience applauded in agreement. He stood and lifted her hand in the air. “Eunia Allardyce, everyone!” The audience applauded.

Lartius watched her walk offstage, impressed by her bravery. She really didn’t seem to care that she might’ve made the Gamemakers angry.

“Well, that was a first, wouldn’t you say?” Caesar asked the crowd. “Let’s see how her counterpart measures up. Give a big hand to Lartius Rankine!”

Lartius walked across the stage, smiling at the crowd. Rendwick felt a small smile forming on his own face. Lartius gave the crowd a small wave, shook Caesar’s hand and sat down.

“Welcome, Lartius.” He folded his hands. With an air of humor, he asked, “Now, how do you feel about the training score you received? Do you think it’s fair?”

“Oh, yeah,” Lartius replied, nodding. “I’m proud of my ten. I earned it.”

“I’m sure you know that you surprised a lot of people when you scored a ten in training.”

“I surprised people?” Lartius repeated.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think some people underestimated your abilities.”

Lartius paused, trying to come up with a civil answer. Even the most brutal tributes never lost control during their interviews. “I got that a lot at home. It’s nothing new.” He thought back to Rendwick’s words on their first day of training. “If some people are arrogant enough to think that about me, then they’ve unwillingly given me an advantage. Plus, it’s been kind of fun surprising people here.”

“So, you feel confident about your chances in the arena?” Caesar asked.

“Absolutely,” Lartius replied. “I’m from District 2. We don’t hold back.”

There was applause from the crowd at Lartius’ words.

“All right,” Caesar leaned in a little, “Now, I spoke with your mentor beforehand, and he said I was allowed to ask you this.”

Lartius nodded.

“Is it true that you’re gay?” Caesar asked.

Many people in the audience gasped.

Lartius looked out at the audience, amused, then back to Caesar. “Yeah, it’s true.”

Rendwick raised his eyebrows in surprise. Out of everything they’d talked about at lunch, Lartius never even mentioned this. He could hear Nitya giggling condescendingly in front of him and shot the back of her head a dirty look.

“You didn’t even hesitate,” Caesar remarked. His eyebrows were raised as well.

“Well, it’s not really a secret,” Lartius answered. “Everyone at home knows.”

“So you’re pretty open about your life.”

“I don’t have anything to hide.”

Caesar nodded. “Well, this is a night for firsts, isn’t it? This is surely going to be an interesting Games.” He stood and held up Lartius’ hand. “Lartius Rankine, ladies and gentlemen!”

The audience burst into the loudest applause so far. As Lartius walked offstage, Rendwick couldn’t help but stare at him incredulously. He’d never seen an openly gay tribute compete in the Games before. Usually a tribute’s sexuality was never talked about. It wasn’t as important as how well they were doing in the arena.

After Lartius exited the stage and went into the lobby of the Training Center, he was greeted by Meriel and Brutus.

“Excellent, you were excellent,” Meriel trilled, beaming.

Brutus was nodding proudly. “Great job.”

Lartius looked behind them and saw Lyme in serious conversation with Eunia. “What’s up with them?” he asked Brutus.

“Lyme told Eunia not to talk about her training score,” Brutus answered. He looked over at Lyme and Eunia. “We might be here for a while.” Lartius nodded.

The next tribute up was the girl from District 3. She was among the younger tributes, probably twelve or thirteen. Rendwick noticed her short, chestnut-brown hair and wide eyes, and felt as though something cold dropped into the pit of his stomach. He did his best to tune out her interview. She was a face he definitely didn’t want to remember in the arena.

After she left the stage, her district partner was called up. Despite his high training score, Rendwick didn’t pay much attention to him either. He vaguely noticed his confidence and drive, and he might’ve made a joke with Caesar because they both laughed. Then Caesar showed him off to the audience and he was gone.

Rendwick suddenly realized he was at the front of the line. Nitya had already been taken backstage.

Caesar clapped his hands together. “This is really shaping up to be an interesting night, isn’t it, folks?” The crowd cheered back at him. “Let’s move on to the next tribute. From District 4, let’s have a hand for Nitya Flamsteed!”

Nitya’s attitude onstage was similar to Eunia’s. She didn’t beam or wave at the audience, but she was polite. Rendwick assumed that Ordoz and Hyssop had talked to her and let her go onstage as herself, instead of a caricature of a female tribute.

“Welcome,” he said warmly as she sat down. “Now, you’re a little young for a District 4 tribute. Usually, we see seventeen and eighteen-year-olds from District 4 in the Games. How old are you again?”

“Fifteen,” Nitya answered.

“And, I don’t think you feel at a disadvantage, being so young. Especially considering your training score.”

Nitya shook her head. “I like surprising people,” she said, echoing Lartius. “It’s fun.”

“So you’re a force to be reckoned with.”

“Definitely. I picked things up really quickly in training the last few days. And scoring a ten is just the icing on the cake.”

The audience applauded and cheered. Nitya flashed them a small smile.

“I’m sensing a common theme here,” Caesar said, smiling at the audience as well. They laughed a little.

Caesar’s tone changed entirely as he looked at Nitya seriously. “One thing I noticed from watching the Reapings was afterwards, when you and your district partner were heading for the train. You looked like you had been crying. Care to share what was going on?”

Nitya paused. Silence fell over the crowd.

She swallowed. “It was just… hard to say good-bye to my family,” she finally answered.

“You’re close with them?”

Nitya nodded. “Very.” She paused again. “And the more I think of them, the more I want to win so I can go home to them.”

There was a chorus of awwww’s in the audience.

Rendwick was so immersed in her interview that he didn’t notice one of the backstage crew had come for him. He led him backstage, behind the right-hand curtains to wait for Caesar’s introduction.

Caesar smiled kindly at her. “And I’m sure you’ll give it your best shot.” He stood up and lifted her hand in the air. “Ladies and gentlemen, Nitya Flamsteed!”

The audience clapped and cheered. Nitya gave them another small smile and walked off.

Rendwick felt his heart pound in anticipation. He took a few deep breaths.

“Now,” Caesar boomed. “Let us meet this district partner of hers. Put your hands together for Rendwick Combe!”

Rendwick walked across the stage, smiling and waving a little, like Lartius did. He shook Caesar’s hand and sat down in the empty seat.

“So Rendwick, how are you enjoying your time in the Capitol?” Caesar asked.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Rendwick replied. “Everything looks bigger than it did on TV.”

A few people in the audience laughed appreciatively.

“Now that you’re here, are you getting a sense of, ‘Wow, I’m actually in the Hunger Games’?” Caesar asked.

“Definitely. It’s kind of a weird feeling actually being a part of it. It’s like what I said about the Capitol. It’s a lot bigger than it seems on TV. It’s so much bigger than I anticipated it. It’s incredible.”

“Did you enjoy the training here?” Caesar asked.

This was the first time Rendwick didn’t have to completely lie through his teeth. “I did. I thought it was fun. It was challenging and it kept me on my toes. And I needed that, since I don’t know exactly what I’ll be facing in the arena. I don’t think any of us do. It was good practice.”

Caesar nodded. “Now, Nitya said before that she had a tough good-bye with her family. Was that the case for you, too?”

Rendwick took a breath. “Uh, yeah.” The tempo in his voice seemed to slow down. “It definitely was hard to say good-bye to them, knowing that they’ll only see me on TV, and I won’t get to see them at all. In District 4, we develop close bonds with the people around us, our friends, our family.”

“And you’re family’s proud that you’re here in the Games?” Caesar asked.

“Yeah,” Rendwick replied. “I don’t want to just bring pride and honor to District 4, I want to make my family proud, too.”

4, I want to make my family proud, too.”

More awwww’s chorused around the audience.

“Well, best of luck to you,” Caesar said, smiling at him. “Rendwick Combe, everyone!” He stood and lifted his hand in the air as the audience cheered and clapped some more.

Rendwick walked offstage and into the Training Center lobby. The first person he saw was Zhenya, smiling proudly at him.

“You were wonderful,” she said.

Rendwick smiled back. “Thanks.” Now that he was off the stage, he felt like a large weight had been lifted off him.

Nitya, on the other hand, was not in a good mood. Talking about her family brought out a vulnerable side of her.

“Now people think I’m weak,” she was saying. “I’m not gonna get any sponsors.”

“Well, I-” Anya began.

“Oh God, I don’t want to hear it,” Nitya snapped at her.

Mags shuffled them all towards the elevators. Rendwick was glad that he was being whisked off right away. He didn’t want to sit through the rest of the interviews. It was like when they announced the training scores yesterday. If he didn’t remember any names or faces, they would be easier to kill.

As they all waited for an elevator, Rendwick saw Lartius with another group of people get into the adjoining elevator and go back to his own floor. He felt a pang of jealousy. He wished he’d been as brave as Lartius was. Nobody back home knew he was gay, not even his parents. Despite how close they were, Rendwick just wasn’t ready to tell them. He saw coming out as a sign of weakness. But after seeing Lartius comfortably and confidently address his sexuality on national television, Rendwick began to wonder if the real weakness was his lack of total honesty.

The Games

Lartius woke up the next morning about a half hour earlier than he’d usually woken up in the Capitol. Some of the nerves and anticipation were catching up to him now that the Games were finally starting today.

Instead of going back to sleep, he laid awake in his bed for what seemed like hours. He stared out his bedroom window. He remembered what Rendwick said in his interview last night. The Hunger Games seemed much bigger when you were a part of it, as opposed to watching it on TV.

Lartius wondered if any of the other high-district tributes were usually this nervous heading into the Games. They were the most prepared, and they had the highest training scores. In their interviews, they all looked prepared, determined, and eager to get into the arena. Lartius knew Eunia said she was eager, but he couldn’t get inside her head to see if she really meant it.

Finally, Lartius decided to get up. He showered, got dressed in the clothes Tayena left out for him in his closet, and went to breakfast. When he got to the dining room, he noticed one of the Avoxes assigned to his floor was staring to his left. Lartius looked over to see Eunia sitting on a windowsill in the sitting room, eating breakfast by herself. He could tell she just wanted to be alone this morning. He understood that. He loaded a plate for himself and went to sit on a different windowsill.

Lartius stared out the window, lost in thought. He thought back to the interviews last night. He knew District 1 was one to watch out for. Their tributes were trained as hard as Districts 2 and 4. He also got the feeling Eunia would be teaming up with them. Rendwick said the girl from his district was probably going to as well.

Lartius tried to figure out how he and Rendwick were going to get through the bloodbath at the Cornucopia. High-district tributes were always in the thick of that, eliminating other tributes to get the supplies they wanted. They hadn’t spoken since the third day of training, before their private sessions. They had no way of communicating with each other before the Games, no way to develop a strategy together. They would have to play it by ear.

Lartius was so lost in thought that he didn’t even notice Eunia leave for the roof with Lyme. Shortly afterwards, he felt someone tap his shoulder and bring him out of his reverie. He looked up and saw Brutus standing over him.

“It’s time,” he said simply.

Lartius nodded and went to put his empty plate back on the table. The two of them took the elevator up to the roof.

“All right,” Brutus said seriously. “You’ve seen how the Games work when they first start. They place all sorts of weapons, food, water, clothes, things like that right at the mouth of the Cornucopia. The knives will be towards the back, so you’ll have to be fast and fight your way to them. You have the skill and stamina to not only survive the bloodbath, but also to eliminate a good amount of tributes.”

Lartius nodded.

“Once the bloodbath is over and you have all your stuff, go find water. Water’s your new best friend. Make sure you remember where you can find it. And make sure you don’t step off your pedestal too early, or you’ll be the first one to go.”

The elevator doors opened. The sunlight bounced off the hovercraft floating just above the roof, waiting for them.

Brutus looked at him. “Good luck. I have faith in you.”

Lartius nodded again. “Thanks.”

Lartius walked to the hovercraft. The closer he got, the faster his heart started to beat. He remembered something Caesar asked during Rendwick’s interview. Now that you’re here, are you getting a sense of, “Wow, I’m actually in the Hunger Games”? Lartius didn’t feel it before but he was definitely starting to. He ascended the steps up into the hovercraft and found a group of tributes already there. One of the Capitol attendants guided him to an empty seat. The doors slowly began to close.

Another Capitol attendant was walking around the various tributes with a syringe. “Give me your arm,” she repeated to each tribute. She pressed the syringe into each of their inner forearms and injected something into their skin.

“Give me your arm,” she said when she reached Lartius. He obediently stuck out his right arm, and she plunged her syringe into his skin.

“What’s this for?” he asked her.

“It’s your tracker,” she replied.

The tracker beeped twice underneath his skin before she pulled out her syringe and went to the next tribute.

The doors closed the rest of the way, leaving a very dim interior of the hovercraft. When it took off, the lights came on, illuminating their faces. Lartius looked around. There was no sign of Rendwick, Eunia, or the tributes from One. But he did recognize the girl from District 4 sitting in the row across from him, her hair in a high braid. Her lips were pursed together and she was staring into her lap. Lartius could still feel his tracker wedged unpleasantly under his skin.

The ride to the arena lasted about a half hour. When they almost arrived there, the windows blacked out, making a few of the tributes jump. Lartius could tell they were very nervous, even scared.

When the hovercraft landed and the doors opened again, they all filed out and were guided away by a couple of Peacekeepers. Lartius looked around. They seemed to be in some stone catacombs, probably directly below the arena. A pair of Peacekeepers led Lartius down the hall to his chamber to meet with Tayena one last time.

The halls were all flanked by Peacekeepers. The trip to his chamber was silent apart from the buzzing of the overhead lights. They finally reached his chamber, opened the door, and Lartius walked inside. The door closed behind him.

The walls were tiled green and there was a metal table, chair, and a coat rod affixed to the wall. Tayena was standing there, waiting for him. She smiled at him, then pulled him into a hug. “I believe in you,” she said.

Lartius nodded. “Thank you.”

She pulled back and went to fetch his jacket. It was dark gray and made of shiny yet very sturdy material. “This jacket is designed to reflect body heat, particularly at night.” She helped him put it on. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m okay,” Lartius replied, nodding a little feverishly. “I’m okay.”

Tayena could see that he wasn’t. She took him by his shoulders. “Breathe,” she instructed. “In through the nose and back out.” Lartius slowly breathed in and out.

“Are high-district tributes usually this nervous?” he asked her.

“Some of them are. Some are worse. Others don’t show it.”

Lartius nodded again.

“Thirty seconds,” said a robotic voice around the room.

Lartius jumped. Tayena tightened her grip on his shoulders a little.

“I’ve said this to every District 2 tribute I’ve had,” Tayena said, “you have no reason to be nervous. You’re prepared for this.”

Lartius hugged her again. He’d always liked her.

“Twenty seconds,” said the robotic voice.

Lartius turned to look in the corner of the room. It was an open glass tube, waiting for him to get inside it. He stared at it for a while. Before he knew it, the robotic voice chimed, “Ten seconds.”

Lartius quickly walked inside the tube. As soon as he was all the way inside, the tube sealed itself behind him. All Lartius could hear was his own breathing. He turned quickly and looked back at Tayena. She mouthed something at him. “Good luck.”

Suddenly, the tube began to move up slowly. He forced himself to breathe slowly and evenly. As Lartius rose up in the tube and surfaced the arena, the sunlight blinded him a little. He squinted a little, letting his eyes adjust to the light, and took in the arena.

It was an urban city, but it looked nothing like the Capitol. The buildings in the arena weren’t sleek, state-of-the-art, and uniform. They were dark, angular, and jumbled together. It would probably look better if it didn’t appear so eerily abandoned. There were rusty fire escapes on the side of every building that lead up to the windows, but the windows looked boarded up. This probably meant the doors were locked, too. The first six or seven feet of each building were covered in brightly colored shapes and designs that looked painted on. Probably spray paint.

As Lartius took in the arena, he noticed that there were streets and sidewalks. With the exception of Main and High Street, where the Cornucopia was, most of the streets seemed to have a letter or number. It was a good way to keep track of where they were in the arena.

His eyes fell on the Cornucopia. He saw backpacks littered on the ground, rolls of blankets stacked on top of each other, and some food. Most of the weapons were deep inside the Cornucopia. Lartius looked inside carefully, trying to find a bundle of throwing knives. He saw bundles of clothes lying around, in all sorts of colors, but there was one black bundle with a dark green trim that stood out. He knew. Those were his knives.

He noticed something else as he took in the arena. His nerves were fading. He scanned the rest of the pedestals and found Rendwick. His eyes were focused on the inside of the Cornucopia, where his spear was. Lartius knew he needed it. Both Rendwick and the guy from District 1 needed it. That’s why there was only one, so the Gamemakers would get them to fight over it.

Lartius looked over the Cornucopia, where the timer was, counting down the seconds until they could charge off their pedestals. Nine seconds left. Lartius’ eyes went back to the black bundle. He felt his front leg bend, ready to go as soon as the timer hit zero. His heart started beating fast again, but out of eagerness rather than nerves. He was ready for this.

Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One.

Zero.

Everyone simultaneously jumped off their pedestals and took off running. Some ran straight for the buildings, and began struggling with the doors. Lartius ran straight for the black bundle, opened it, and found his knives in there, just like he expected to. He had a weapon.

He looked up and saw Rendwick heading for the spear way in the back of the Cornucopia. He noticed another tribute heading in the same direction. Without even thinking, he threw one of his knives. It sank right into the tribute’s neck and he fell down.

Rendwick had already gotten a large, dark blue backpack and needed to get to the spear. He could sense someone running near him, but he didn’t know if they were running to him or something else. He didn’t get to find out because he was dead before Rendwick was even halfway to the spear.

He stopped in his tracks and looked back. It was a guy, probably a couple years younger than he was, with a knife sticking out of his neck. He saw Lartius race over and pull the knife out of his neck. He looked up at Rendwick. “Go!” he yelled, pointing at the spear. “We’ll meet up later! Go!”

It was absolute chaos. Rendwick took off again, and saw the spear waiting for him next to a bunch of swords. He was getting closer and closer but stopped again when he saw the guy from District 1 grab it first.

Rendwick moved to the side, looking for another one. He didn’t see any. The panic began to rise into his lungs. He saw a bundle of javelins in the far corner, but they were much thinner and less powerful than a spear. He found a scythe lying on top of a pile of supplies, and quickly picked it up, thinking he’d have to make do with whatever he could get.

Lartius then began searching for supplies. He looked through a couple of the backpacks strewn across the floor, taking a few things out of one and placing them in another. He had to stock up. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone desperately trying to open the door to one of the buildings. He quickly hurled a knife and got it right in the tribute’s back. He couldn’t tell who it was, but whomever it was sunk right to the floor and didn’t move.

Rendwick saw a tribute with an axe head towards Lartius, who was still stocking up on supplies. Rendwick sprinted forward and without thinking threw the scythe. It pierced the tribute’s stomach, stopping him in his tracks. Rendwick raced over, took the scythe out and slashed him across the chest. He fell to the ground.

Lartius looked behind him at the tribute lying dead on the ground, then up at Rendwick. “Thanks.” He zipped his backpack shut. “Where are we meeting up?”

“We’ll find each other,” Rendwick replied.

Over Lartius’ head, he saw one of the tributes coming at them with a sword. Before Lartius could even move, Rendwick threw his scythe again and caught her in the chest. He was about to move forward and finish her off when a spear entered her back and she keeled over. The guy from One was on his way over to retrieve his spear so Rendwick bolted. He also took her sword and the scythe Rendwick had thrown at her. Then, Rendwick watched him take the axe from the tribute he’d killed who almost attacked Lartius.

He realized he was weaponless again. He needed to find something. One weapon, no matter how small it was. He caught sight of a dead tribute in front of one of the door to one of the buildings. As he got closer, he recognized her as the female tribute from District 3. She’s clearly tried to hide in one of the buildings, but her desperation grew once she noticed the door was locked. She had a knife sticking out of her back.

As Rendwick bent down to get it, he felt something graze the top of his head. Knife in hand, he looked up to find a silver arrow stuck in the door. He looked around and saw Nitya aiming another arrow at him. He knew she’d teamed up with the tributes from One, but truthfully, he didn’t expect her to go for the kill this early in the Games.

He dodged another arrow and ran for it. This is where his speed came in handy. But as he ran, he realized he’d lost Lartius. He didn’t want to look back and risk getting one of Nitya’s arrows. She might’ve gotten a ten for it in her private session, but it seemed like Nitya had problems shooting at a moving target, especially if she was chasing him.

Rendwick climbed up the fire escape of the nearest building. Nitya wouldn’t follow him up, since her hands were busy with the bow and arrows. He made it all the way to the top before he looked down to find her glaring up at him from the middle of the street. He saw the arrow racing towards him and ducked. The arrow sank into the wooden panel boarding up the window behind him. He was about to move up to the roof and keep running when someone called Nitya’s name. She shot a glare up at Rendwick and followed the voice out of sight.

Rendwick looked up and saw the arrow quivering in the panel. He figured he’d keep it, use it as an extra weapon, since all he had was a knife. When he pulled it out, shards of broken glass tumbled down the fire escape. He made a jagged hole taking out the arrow. Brow furrowed, he felt around the panel looking for a flaw in it. It felt solid, but not fragile. He looked inside the hole and saw a few small jolts and sparks and broken pieces of what appeared to be a camera. One of the Gamemakers’. He’d always wondered how they were able to broadcast the Games from so many different angles.

He noticed the wood panel was affixed to the inside of the window frame. He quickly looked around to see if anyone was watching him, then pushed the panel gently. He pushed it again, harder, and felt it loosen. He put his weight into his shoulder and leaned onto the panel. He saw a small gap between the panel and the frame. Thinking quickly, he took the arrow Nitya shot at him and wedged it in, trying to pry the panel open. He moved it up and down the frame, opening the gap wider and wider. He pushed with his shoulder again and made the gap wide enough for him to slide through it into the building. When he got inside, he noticed that the panel was only halfway glued to the frame. He suspected this was the very last touch the Gamemakers made to the arena. He firmly pushed the panel back against the frame, and slowly let go. The panel stayed in the frame. He leaned his back against it, his heart thumping frantically.

He glanced around the room. It was about three-quarters the size of his bedroom in the Capitol. There was no light, since all the windows were boarded up. The walls had been painted white, but the paint had faded into a grayish color and was chipping off the walls. There was a door on the other side of the room, but when Rendwick tried it, it was locked.

He took another glance around the room. He was a little confused. Did the Gamemakers make this room on purpose? Was anyone supposed to find it? Did all the buildings in the arena have rooms like this? Rendwick was a little hesitant to use this as a hideout. However, the camera just outside was broken, so it was entirely possible that no one had seen him go inside, not even the Gamemakers.

He finally had time to check the backpack he got from the Cornucopia. Inside was an empty canteen for water, some bread, a pouch of powder that he could add to water and make soup, some dried beef strips, a ball of twine, a small pair of binoculars, some matches, and night vision shades. Apart from the empty canteen, he was pleased. He was sure all of this would come in handy.

He looked around at the room. He could see fairly well, since the sunlight permeated a little through the wooden panels in the windows. He knew it would be pitch black inside once the sun started going down. And since the camera inside the panel was broken, there was a chance no one saw him go inside. He had the perfect hideout.

Rendwick gave himself some time to catch his breath and relax. He had to find Lartius later.


When Lartius saw the guy from One throw his spear into that female tribute, he ran. The chaos was overwhelming, and he was not ready to face him yet. Lartius knew he was going to be his biggest competition.

Unfortunately, when he ran, he ran right into Eunia, who’d gotten her hands on a mace. Before she could even swing at him, he took off. As he ran, he heard her yell, “I’ll catch up with you! This won’t take long!”

Lartius knew she was after him. He hurled a knife in her direction, but he saw her duck, and the knife landed right in the chest of another tribute. Given that she was about an inch taller than him, she had longer legs. He didn’t want to waste another one of his knives on her yet. He quickly jumped for the ladder of the nearest fire escape. He figured this might slow her down a little, since one of her hands was holding the mace.

He hauled himself onto the roof of the building. He was planning on going down the fire escape on the other side of the building, but he noticed the gaps in between the buildings weren’t that wide. He could jump over them no problem, especially if he had a running start. He jumped onto a couple other buildings before he chanced a glance behind him. Eunia was still chasing him, but she was farther away than he thought, so he had some time.

Over the roof of the next building, he saw a large group of trees. He figured he could buy himself some more time if the branches and leaves could conceal him. He jumped right into the closest tree. The branches clawed at his skin, jacket, and backpack, but he willed himself not to fall out. He caught hold of a thick, sturdy branch and held onto it. He heaved himself onto it so he was sitting down. He had to find a way to buy himself some time.

He noticed he had something caught in his jacket. He fished out a broken tree branch the length of his arm. With one hand, he rustled the branches below him a little to make it look like he’d jumped down and kept running. Then, with the other hand, he threw the broken branch into the next tree to make it look like he was jumping from tree to tree, trying to throw them off a little.

He looked up through the leaves and saw that the rooftop was empty. He pulled his knees up so they didn’t hang off the branches, and heard the sound of people running.

“Damn it!” he heard Eunia yell.

“I think he kept running,” he heard an unfamiliar female voice say. He carefully peered between the leaves and saw it was the girl from District 1.

“I was this close,” he heard Eunia say. He felt her hit the tree trunk with her mace in anger. “He was right there in front of me.”

“I didn’t think he was that fast,” said a third female voice. Lartius saw the high braid in between the leaves and knew it was the girl from District 4.

“Maybe we shouldn’t kill him,” said the girl from One. “If he’s fast, he could be useful. I saw him throwing knives in the Cornucopia before. He’s good.”

There was a pause. “Whatever,” Eunia finally said. “He’s not gonna want to be allies with us anyway. He’s teaming up with the guy from your district.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” said the girl from Four. “They trained together all three days.”

“We should get back to Phox,” the girl from One said. “I don’t think he’s done at the Cornucopia.”

He heard the three girls walk off. As soon as their footsteps were faint enough, he moved one of the branches aside and saw that they were out of sight.

Lartius gave himself time to breathe and relax. Adrenaline was still buzzing through his veins. He slipped off his backpack and looked inside it to see what he’d gotten from the Cornucopia. He didn’t really pay attention to what he took; he just grabbed random things from other backpacks and stuffed it in his own. The zipper was bulging. He wondered how he was able to get it to close. He found some very sturdy rope, a coil of wire, a large metal canteen for water (which was unsurprisingly empty), an extra bundle of knives, some bread, a package of crackers, sunglasses, a tent, a roll of blankets, a bit of rabbit, a bottle of iodine, some dried fruit, a flashlight, some matches, and a first aid kit.

As he was putting everything back inside his backpack, he swore he could hear water. It sounded like it was coming from further down the row of trees. Carefully looking around to make sure he was alone, he dropped down to the ground, following the sound carefully, and instantly found the source of water: a large stone fountain. It was very simple. It was a very simple fountain, no intricate designs in the stone.

Lartius approached the basin of the fountain, and gingerly smelled the water, to check for any poisons. It seemed to be fine. He scooped up some of it in his hands and tried it. It was fine, no poisons, no toxins, and it was nice and cold. He pulled out his canteen and filled it.

A loud booming sound made him jump a couple inches off the ground. The cannons. The bloodbath at the Cornucopia was finally finished. Lartius counted the number of cannons fired. Eleven. Eleven people were dead. He felt his stomach drop. Rendwick could be anywhere in the arena, if he was still alive. They’d lost track of each other during the chaos at the Cornucopia.


After the cannons died off, Rendwick realized he was at a disadvantage. He might be from a top four district, but his only weapon was a knife and an arrow. He wasn’t fast enough to get the one spear in the Cornucopia. He needed a better weapon.

His mouth was starting to dry up. He needed to find water, too. But he needed to make sure his hideout wouldn’t be discovered while he was gone.

He noticed a knot in the panel, on the side he’d pulled apart from the frame. He pulled out a length of twine from the ball in his backpack and cut it short. Working quickly, he tied one end to the knot and the other end into a loop. He made sure the knot was secure as he emerged on the fire escape. He pulled the twine tightly and was able to fit the panel back into the frame. Apart from the hole in the middle where the broken camera was, it looked indistinguishable from the rest of the panels in the windows. He tucked the strand of twine as far into the frame as he could.

He mentally documented the location of his hideout: the corner of 15th Street and Avenue F. As he made his way to the next roof, he remembered seeing trees several blocks to the left of the building. He hoped there would be water nearby.

Instead of climbing down the fire escape and walking in the streets towards the trees, he jumped from roof to roof until he got to the trees. Rendwick carefully looked around, looking for signs of other cameras. Usually they were well hidden, but if he seeing has there was one in the panel concealing his hideout, there were more in the other windows. Across from his hideout was a solid brick wall. There didn’t appear to be other cameras in the vicinity. He climbed down the fire escape and made his way towards them, looking around carefully in case people were coming.

The trees and surrounding area were a really nice green. As he looked around, he noticed a broken branch in one of the trees. He wasn’t tall enough to reach it so he had to jump to grab it. It was a little shorter than his arm, but it was thick and sturdy. He looked back up at the branches. If he found a few more sturdy ones, he could use the knife he got to sharpen the ends, and tie them together on one end to fashion a trident.

He walked down a little, jumped up, and broke another branch off another tree. Just as the branch broke off in his hand, he heard a series of wild squeaks and high-pitched noises. He quickly backed away. He didn’t know what it was or where it was coming from, but he wasn’t about to find out.

Rendwick suddenly heard rustling at the far end of the trees. Before he could even react, he heard faint voices coming from behind him. He quickly spotted a thicket of bushes and ran behind them. The bushes were pretty tall so he could sit behind them and keep his head down and he wouldn’t be found.

“You said he went this way?” he heard a male voice say.

“Yeah, he jumped into this tree, dropped down, and kept running,” a girl replied.

“He was really fast. I didn’t expect it.”

Rendwick froze. That last voice belonged to Nitya.

“So he dropped down, and kept running that way?” the guy asked. Rendwick assumed it was the guy from District 1.

“He could be anywhere,” a third female voice said.

“Why do you want to get him so bad?” the guy asked.

“Because I want to prove those Gamemakers that I’m better than him, and I deserved a higher score,” he heard the first girl say. He assumed she was the girl from District 2. “Plus, at the Cornucopia, he was right there in front of me and I let him slip through my fingers.”

Rendwick felt his heart hammering at his ribs. She was talking about Lartius.

“Well, when we do find him, he’s all yours,” the guy said.

“Wait, wait, listen,” he heard Nitya say. “Does that sound like water?”

He heard their footsteps walk past him.

“If it is, we’re setting up camp here,” the guy said.

Rendwick knew they weren’t that far from him, so he had to get out of there before they found him. He slowly moved away from the bushes, carefully looked up, and saw that their backs were turned. He quickly took his chance and walked out, looking back to make sure they didn’t notice he’d been there the whole time. Once he turned the corner, he climbed up the nearest fire escape and went back to his hideout.

Once he got back inside his hideout, he checked around the room. Everything looked the same, so he didn’t think anyone discovered it. He sat down next to the panel to get as much sunlight as he could while he worked. He took one of the branches and broke it into three pieces. He sharpened the end of each piece, then bundled it around the end of the other branch. He reached into his backpack and pulled out his ball of twine again. He cut a piece off and tied it all together tightly.

Just outside the window, Rendwick heard footsteps on the fire escape. He quickly jumped up, shaking a little from being startled. As he raised his makeshift trident, he realized how stupid it looked. He wasn’t sure how deadly his makeshift trident was. It could probably cause harm to an animal, but not to a person.

The footsteps walked down the fire escape without stopping, getting fainter and fainter until they finally stopped. Rendwick tossed his failed trident on the floor. He had no idea what to do now. He needed a better weapon than just a knife and an arrow.

Wishing for the Gamemakers to add another spear at the Cornucopia was foolish. There was only one for a reason: so that those who wanted had to fight for it.

Rendwick noticed that the lights were dimming inside the room. The sun was going down. Suddenly, he had an idea. Nitya was teaming up with the tributes from One and the girl from Two. They found water nearby and were setting up camp by the trees. If he was super quiet, he could sneak over, take the spear from the guy from One, and disappear before they woke up.

Rendwick’s heart was pounding a little in anticipation. He didn’t have a plan B. If this didn’t work, he was dead. His mouth felt even drier. He didn’t have the chance to get water.


Lartius drank some more water before he decided to look for Rendwick. Right as he was about to leave, he heard a wild high-pitched squeak. He looked around and saw a group of squirrels attacking a bird. He watched them tear at a bird on the ground. They were probably muttations, since Lartius never saw squirrels act like this before.

A loud snap cut through the air and the squirrels started squeaking madly again. There was someone behind the trees. Lartius quickly left the park, and just in time, too, since he could faintly hear Eunia’s voice as he left.

He ran for the nearest building and climbed up the fire escape. He used the opportunity to explore the arena while he looked for Rendwick. He scanned the streets and sidewalks but didn’t see him. He needed a better angle.

As he looked around for a taller building, he found the tallest one near the very center of the arena. The buildings around it were higher too, so that people could get to the roof. He headed in that direction, keeping watch for anyone in the vicinity.

He had to go down several blocks from roof to roof, the buildings all gradually getting taller and taller. He noticed that there was a particularly large gap between a couple of the buildings and the only way across was to travel across an electrical wire strung from two tall poles. The wire had large, wide rings strung on it the entire length, which would help him get across. Lartius was hesitant to travel on the wire in case it was electrified.

Thinking quickly, he took off one of his shoes and gingerly touched the rings on the wire. Nothing happened. It looked similar to the rings course in the Training Center. Lartius couldn’t remember if any of the courses had been incorporated into the Games before.

He put his shoe back on and hitched his backpack up a little higher on his shoulders. He tentatively touched one of the rings, bracing for whatever might happen, but nothing did. He gripped it. There was a large gap between his hand and the underside of the wire. As long as he didn’t touch it, he’d be fine.

As he made his way across, he knew the rings course at the Training Center was much shorter than this. He forced himself to not look down. He wasn’t dangling dangerously a hundred feet over the street. He was above a shorter building, but it was still a long drop.

Lartius made it to the other side and climbed onto the next rooftop. The next two buildings before the tallest one would involve more climbing. He was slightly out of breath from crossing the wire to the next building. He tried to save his energy, in case someone was going to pop out at him. And if no one did, he still had to cross the wire to get back. He wasn’t going to stay on top of the tallest building, secluded, away from all the action. It wouldn’t help him find Rendwick.

He finally made it to the tallest building and looked around. He noticed the building had an interesting roof design. The roof was diamond-shaped and it appeared to be on an incline with the higher part of the incline ending in a very sharp point, giving him a bird’s eye view of the arena. The building was too tall for him to see people’s faces, but at least he learned something: there were three parks in the arena, each of them with a stone fountain, so that there wasn’t just one source of water. The Cornucopia over on Main Street looked miniscule from up on the roof.

The sun was starting to set so Lartius made his way back. He didn’t know where he was going to sleep for the night, but he’d figure it out. He rubbed his hands together and jumped up to the rings and made his way across. Night had fallen over most of the arena by the time he made it back to the other side.

Lartius made his way back downtown. He was coming up on the park where he’d found water and decided to camp out nearby. Just as he was climbing down the fire escape, he heard voices coming from the trees. He stopped and listened, only to recognize Eunia’s voice. He quickly climbed back up the fire escape and moved a couple buildings over. He walked across a couple of roofs, trying to find the best way to conceal himself from them. They were all camping by the trees, so he moved behind the trees and sat down on the highest level of the fire escape.

He was tired. He’d been on his feet all day, running from Eunia, looking for Rendwick, all while trying to stay alive. He shook off his backpack and pulled out his water canteen and some bread. He would stay there for the night and make a better effort to look for Rendwick the next day. He didn’t want to do it at night and risk startling him.

He could feel sleep gently taking over. His head rested on the brick wall of the building. The sky had turned pitch black. The only source of light was the fire Eunia and her troupe of allies had lit. Being a high-district tribute had its advantages, particularly if they teamed up together. They could light a fire and if they were discovered, no one would try to kill them, because they were all too skilled.

Suddenly, the night sky lit up a little to show the Capitol seal. The anthem played as words beneath the seal spelled out, “The Fallen.” Lartius sat up, watching intently. First was the girl from Three. Then both tributes from Six. Lartius let out a breath, resting his head on the brick wall. Rendwick was still alive. Both tributes from Seven. The guy from Eight. The girl from Nine. Both tributes from Ten and Eleven.


The anthem died out and the sky turned pitch black again. Standing on the fire escape outside his hideout, Rendwick breathed a sigh of relief. Lartius was still alive. He’d go looking for him tomorrow.

Rendwick took a deep breath, donned his night vision shades, and gripped his knife tightly. He had to take his chance now. He pulled the panel tightly shut, climbed up on the roof, and made his way uptown to 23rd Street. To his right, he could barely make out a dull orange glow. A fire, presumably. The high-district tributes had the privilege of making a fire without the fear of being killed. The other tributes were too scared to try and kill them that way in case they missed.

Two buildings away from the park, Rendwick descended the fire escape and made his way more cautiously towards them. He noticed the fire was dimming. It looked nothing more than charred tree branches, glowing embers, and a few small flames.

Fortunately, they were all sound asleep. Rendwick quickly scanned the ground and found the guy from One. His spear was on the ground about a foot next to him. Rendwick gingerly stepped into the park and slowly picked up the spear. None of the tributes even stirred. Rendwick hiked up the spear in his grasp and slowly made his way out of the park and up the fire escape of the nearest building.

He tried to be as quiet as possible to not wake anyone, but his footsteps on the fire escape woke up Lartius, who was asleep on the fire escape one building over. He glanced up through tired eyes to see Rendwick’s silhouette bounce from one building to the next. He moved about four blocks before he took a right and disappeared.

DISTRICT 1 Phox Baxwoll Volumnia Roxen
DISTRICT 2 Lartius Rankine Eunia Allardyce
DISTRICT 3 Alto Whishart Fannia Lapworth
DISTRICT 4 Rendwick Combe Nitya Flamsteed
DISTRICT 5 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 6 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 7 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 8 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 9 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 10 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 11 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 12 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE

The Alliance

Lartius woke up just as the sun was rising. He allowed himself a couple minutes to wake up and stretch. He had to keep moving. He knew Eunia and her troupe were going to be up soon.

As he put his backpack on and climbed up onto the roof, he thought back to last night, seeing Rendwick jump from roof to roof. Lartius followed his path. He’d gone down four blocks before he made a right. Hopefully, he’d find him soon.




Rendwick heard a faint beeping noise that gently woke him up. It sounded like it was coming from the fire escape. He took his spear and carefully opened the wooden panel. He quickly looked around to check if the coast was clear, then found the course of the noise.

It was a parachute. His first gift from a sponsor. The Gamemakers didn’t know exactly where he was, but the tracker in his arm gave them his location in the arena. He quickly took the parachute and went back inside the room. He opened the parachute to find bread from District 4. He smiled to himself. He wondered if the bread came from someone rewarding him for stealing the spear last night.

His head was pounding. He hadn’t had water for a whole day. He needed to go back to the trees and have a better look around.

Suddenly, he heard clanging on the fire escape again. As he immediately stood up and grabbed his spear, he knew this was going to drive him nuts. He heard the footsteps halt, and then retreat a few steps. He could tell whoever was outside noticed the loose panel. He didn’t pounce. He waited.

Then the panel moved. His heart rate kicked into high gear. A beam of sun burst into the room and a dark silhouette appeared in the gap. Rendwick jumped about a foot in the air before he recognized the face. Lartius.

“Oh God, it’s just you.” He ran his fingers through his hair.

“You okay?” Lartius asked.

“Yeah, fine.” Rendwick propped the spear on the wall. “Get in, hurry.”

Lartius hopped down from the windowsill. He and Rendwick pushed the panel back up into place.

Inside the room, Lartius got a closer look at Rendwick. “You look like hell,” he noted.

Rendwick said nothing. He sat back down on the floor.

“When was the last time you had water?” Lartius asked.

“I haven’t been able to find any,” Rendwick answered heavily.

Lartius quickly shed his backpack and took out his canteen. “Here,” he said, offering it to Rendwick.

Rendwick shook his head. “No, I can’t, that’s yours.”

“I know where to get more. Just take it,” Lartius insisted.

Rendwick gratefully took the canteen and drank everything. He rested his head against the wall, panting from drinking so fast. “Thanks,” he said, a little breathlessly.

Lartius took back the canteen and put it in his backpack.

“Where did you get it?” Rendwick asked.

“The park three blocks from here,” Lartius replied, sitting down next to him. “The water’s fine, but the plants are poisonous. And the squirrels are mutts. I saw a bunch of them tear a bird to shreds.”

“There’s water in the park?” Rendwick asked.

“Yeah,” Lartius replied. “What, you didn’t find any there?”

“Well, I wasn’t there for too long,” Rendwick said. “I almost ran into Nitya again so I just got out of there fast. I guess you really have to look for it.”

Lartius looked at him. “Wait, when was this?”

Rendwick thought back. “Uhhh… it was after the cannons. I went to find water and that’s when I tried to make a trident out of tree branches. I had to hide behind a bush.”

Lartius raised his eyebrows. “I think I was there.”

“You were?”

“Did you hear this high-pitched squeaking sound when you were there?” Lartius asked.

“Yeah,” Rendwick replied, nodding.

“Those were the rabid squirrels.”

Rendwick laughed. It was the first time he laughed since the Games had started. “We were feet away from each other, and we never knew.”

Lartius laughed, too. “And you were feet away from the water, too. It was just past those trees.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah.” Still laughing, Lartius looked around the dark room. “How did you find this place?”

“Nitya allied with the tributes from One, and started shooting at me with the bow and arrow she got from the Cornucopia. The girl from my district,” he added, noticing the look of confusion on Lartius’ face. “She chased me up to the fire escape, shot at me again, and missed. You saw that hole on the outside of the panel? The arrow lodged into it and apparently broke one of the Gamemakers’ cameras.”

“Damn,” Lartius said, looking at the panel.

“I checked the area,” Rendwick continued. “There aren’t any other cameras in the vicinity. That one was apparently supposed to cover up a blind spot in the arena.”

“So you’ve just been hiding out here?” Lartius asked. It was a little uncharacteristic of a high-district tribute to not be in the middle of the action.

“Actually, I was trying to figure out a strategy to find you without getting killed,” Rendwick replied. “In case you forgot, we were supposed to be allies in the arena.”

“I didn’t forget,” Lartius replied, smiling a little. “I was looking for you, too, but I was trying to keep Eunia off my back at the same time.”

“The girl from your district?”

Lartius nodded. “She turned on me, too. She teamed up with the girl from your district and the tributes from One.”

Lartius noticed a bundle of what looked like tree branches on the other side of the room. He got up for a closer look. “What’s this?”

Rendwick looked up. “Oh. That’s the trident I tried to make and failed. They didn’t have any in the Cornucopia. Then, after I made it I realized how stupid it looked.”

“So what did you use as a weapon, then?”

“A knife I found during the bloodbath,” Rendwick replied, holding it up. “I think it’s yours. I used it to sharpen the ends of the branches.” He held it up to Lartius, hilt first.

Lartius shook his head. “Keep it. You need it.”

“No, not really. After the trident failed, I had to find something else.” Rendwick indicated the spear.

“How’d you get that?”

“Stole it from the guy from One last night, while they were all sleeping.”

Lartius raised his eyebrows, impressed. “Wow. You’re probably at the top of his hit list now.”

“I don’t care,” Rendwick replied. “I’m probably better with it than he is.” He held out the knife again.

Lartius took it this time.

“Did you eat yet?” Rendwick asked.

“No, not yet,” Lartius replied. “I was trying to find you first.”

Rendwick offered his parachute full of bread. “My first gift from a sponsor.”

“Thanks.” Lartius took a piece and sat down next to him. “What was it for?”

“Not sure. I like to think that someone was giving me props for stealing the spear in the middle of the night.”

Lartius took a bite, then looked at the bread, frowning slightly. “Do you know what kind of bread this is?”

“It’s from District 4. See how it’s shaped like a fish? And the green in it is from seaweed.”

“I’ve never had something like this before.”

“What’s the bread like in District 2?”

“Uh, well apparently ours has a little more iron in it. It’s dark brown, rectangular, and small, but really thick.”

“A roll, basically.”

“Yeah.” Lartius took another bite of the District 4 bread. He actually liked the small taste of seaweed in the bread.

“It sounds good.”

“It is.”

After they finished their bread, Lartius stood up. “We should go get water. I’m all out,” he said with a smile.

Rendwick smiled back. Lartius extended a hand and helped him up. Rendwick took his spear and the two of them carefully left the hideout. Rendwick pulled the panel shut and they went off to the park. As soon as it came into view, they heard what sounded like a loud roar. They looked at each other and proceeded with caution.

They went down a fire escape between two buildings, but didn’t drop onto the sidewalk yet. They stayed hidden in the alley, watching. Eunia, Volumnia, and Nitya all emerged from the trees with canteens full of water to find Phox looking furious.

“What are you doing?” Nitya asked.

“I can’t find my goddamn spear!” he yelled. He tore their supplies apart, looking for it. The girls stood back, not saying anything. “And nobody tell me I lost it! I put it down, we went to sleep, I woke up, and it was gone! Somebody stole it!”

“No one’s saying you lost it,” Eunia said indignantly.

“But you’re not gonna find it by tearing through all our crap,” Volumnia said, a little annoyed. “We need to keep moving if we’re gonna kill anyone at all today.” She began gathering up her stuff. The rest followed suit, Phox albeit begrudgingly.

Lartius’ eyes traveled to Eunia. Her hair was coming out of her ponytail and she definitely looked irritated. He knew she was used to being fed around the clock and having a full night’s rest. The sudden change in the last day was not settling well with her.

Volumnia looked completely different than Rendwick remembered her in her interview. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a bun. He suspected it looked neater at the start of the Games, but it was falling apart a little. With her shiny black jacket and long, thin sword sticking out of her belt, she looked like a very tough warrior, especially with Phox next to her.

“It’s not like you have no weapons,” Eunia said. “You got that axe from the bloodbath.”

“It’s not the same,” Phox spat at her. “I’m good with an axe, but I’m lethal with a spear.”

Eunia opened her mouth to retort, but Volumnia shot her a look and shook her head. Eunia folded her arms in front of her chest.

“Where do we go next?” Nitya asked.

“If we look around, we can explore the arena while we look for more people to kill,” Volumnia suggested.

“Let’s keep going downtown,” Eunia said, pointing over at the next street sign.

Phox was still fuming. He hitched his backpack up higher.

“If I find whoever took my spear,” Rendwick heard him say, “I’ll make sure I give everyone watching a good show.”

His stomach clenched. There it was. That was why Rendwick hated him so much.

They all walked away. As soon as their footsteps were faint enough, Lartius and Rendwick continued their way to the park.

“I don’t like him,” Rendwick said.

“He probably has rage or anger problems,” Lartius said, as they walked into the park.

Rendwick nodded. Phox’s rage made him dangerous, but impulsive. Impulsiveness could be a problem. “If he finds out that I took his spear, he’s gonna serve my head on a silver platter for everyone watching.”

“I can get him for you if you want,” Lartius offered with a smile, twirling one of his knives. “It’ll be super quick, he’ll never see it coming.”

Rendwick gave a small smile in return as they kept walking and reached the trees. Right past the line of trees stood a large stone fountain.

“There’s the water,” Lartius said. He took out his canteen and filled it up. Rendwick did the same.

“How do you know the berries are poisonous?” Rendwick asked, his eyes on the bushes.

“I recognized them.” Lartius screwed on the top of his canteen. “It’s nightlock. You’d be dead in seconds.”

Rendwick’s canteen was finally full. He closed it and put it back in his backpack, ready to go back to the hideout.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Lartius said, grabbing his arm.

“What?”

“I wanna try something.” Lartius’ eyes were fixed on one of the trees.

Rendwick noticed he was looking over at a bird perched in the tree. Lartius took one of his knives. He squinted through one eye, sizing up his target. Then, he threw the knife. It went right through the bird and fell to the ground.

Lartius laughed to himself. “I didn’t think that would actually work.” He went to retrieve his knife. “Well, now we have more food.”

“How’re we gonna cook it though?” Rendwick asked. “We can’t do it inside, we have to keep the window shut.”

Lartius seemed to be chewing on his tongue. “I’ll do it now, and we’ll just bring it back.” He shed his backpack, opened it, and rummaged inside until he found his matches.

Rendwick reached up into the nearest tree and broke off some branches. He handed them to Lartius who arranged them on the ground.

“I’ll keep watch,” Rendwick said.

Lartius nodded as he lit the fire. Rendwick hiked up his head in his grasp and kept his eyes peeled for anyone coming.

Lartius quickly plucked all the feathers and gutted it. It was one thing he learned from the Training Center at the Capitol, and not the one from back home. He speared the bird on a stick and rotated it over the fire.

Rendwick was feeling a little antsy. He felt a wave of paranoia pass over him as he kept looking around in every direction to double- and triple-check that the coast was clear.

He glanced back at Lartius, still crouched over the fire. The bird was cooking, but not as quickly as he wanted it to. He noticed Lartius fidgeting with the stick. If they didn’t finish quickly, they risked getting caught by Eunia, Nitya, Phox, and Volumnia.

Just as Rendwick glanced up and down the streets again, a cannon fired. Immediately, he whipped around and looked at Lartius. Lartius looked up at him, then at the sky.

“That was fast,” Lartius said.

“You don’t think they killed someone already?” Rendwick asked. His heart was pounding. For a split second, he’d thought Nitya had shot Lartius from one of the building rooftops while he wasn’t looking and the cannon was for him.

Lartius was still looking up at the sky when a hovercraft appeared near the tallest building and a figure rose up into it.

“Oh, I think I know what happened,” Lartius said, still staring at the hovercraft.

“What?”

“To get to the roof of that really tall building,” he pointed, “you have to travel across an electric wire. It has rings hanging from it, like the rings course in the Training Center. The rings are safe to touch but the wire isn’t. I think whoever tried to get across touched the wire and got shocked.”

They watched the hovercraft vanish into thin air. Lartius went back to the bird, which was finally done. He quickly pulled it off the stick, put it in his backpack, and stomped out the fire. He gathered some water from the fountain with his hands and poured it over the dying embers.

“All done,” he said.

“Great,” Rendwick replied. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Yeah, but not back to the room,” Lartius said, pulling his backpack straps over his shoulders. “We should explore the arena some.”

Rendwick knew what “exploring the arena” meant. They were also looking for people to kill. But Rendwick didn’t object. There were cameras everywhere. As long as he was in front of them, he had to do what was expected of him.

Still glancing around the streets, they made their way out of the park and up the nearest fire escape. Rendwick hoped the paranoia would fade soon. He hated it.

“You know how many people you killed at the Cornucopia?” Lartius asked as they walked across the rooftops.

Rendwick stretched his neck out a little. “Uh, just one, I think. The guy that almost got you with an axe. I went for another tribute, but District 1 got there first.”

“Phox.”

“Yeah. And I lost the scythe I was using in the process.” He scuffed his shoe on the roof. “You?”

“Three,” Lartius answered. “I don’t really remember who they were, though.”

Rendwick didn’t want to inquire further. He knew that talking about their killings together was expected behavior of high-district tributes, but he hoped they could break the mold. He felt it was heartless to talk about the people they killed in such a casual way, especially considering that the dead tributes’ families were watching the whole exchange.

Lartius led Rendwick to the left-hand side of the arena. He didn’t get the chance to go over there. It felt like the first day in the Games had gone by so quickly. Seeing the arena from the roof of the tallest building gave him a great view of everything. He would never have known that there were three parks in the arena.

As they moved from rooftop to rooftop, Rendwick saw another clump of trees in the distance. “I think that’s another park,” he said, pointing.

Lartius stretched his neck to look over a few buildings. “Yeah, it probably is.”

Instead of climbing down the nearest fire escape and continuing on the sidewalk, they stayed on the rooftops. They reached the nearest building to the park and were able to scan the park grounds to see if anyone was already there. Rendwick was inwardly relieved that no one was there. He knew Lartius was a little bloodthirsty and competitive, but that just wasn’t him.

“There’s no one here,” Lartius said, scanning the park again.

“We can check it out anyway,” Rendwick suggested. “You said you wanted to explore the arena.”

Lartius half-nodded, half-shrugged. He was about to climb down the fire escape when another cannon suddenly went off. They looked at each other, then up at the sky.

“Who do you think that was?” Lartius asked.

“No idea,” Rendwick replied.

Not too far away, a hovercraft materialized in thin air. Rendwick reached into his backpack and pulled out his binoculars. He pressed them to his eyes and focused on the bottom of the hovercraft. Very slowly, a figured began to rise into it.

“Oh God,” Rendwick said, adjusting the lenses.

“What?” Lartius asked.

“See for yourself.” Rendwick passed him the binoculars.

Lartius looked through the binoculars. He found the shape rising in the air. He focused the lenses like Rendwick did, then realized that it was actually two shapes, one very large long one, and a much shorter round one.

“Is that - is he - did they cut off his head?” Lartius asked.

“I think so,” Rendwick replied. He didn’t have to ask who Lartius meant by “they”. Rendwick knew Phox had gotten an axe from the Cornucopia yesterday.

Lartius didn’t recognize the face on the detached head. He followed the body with the binoculars until it disappeared into the hovercraft. Just as he handed Rendwick back his binoculars, he heard loud voices nearby. And laughter. Laughter in the Hunger Games?

Lartius and Rendwick craned their necks past the trees and over a few buildings before they found the source of the noise: the other high-district tributes coming around the corner a few blocks north of them.

Instinctively, Rendwick backed up a little and pulled Lartius back with him by the elbow, so they couldn’t see them up on the roof, but Rendwick and Lartius could still see them. Rendwick’s stomach clenched again when he saw Phox holding an axe, swinging it in circles. They all seemed to be in a much better mood than they were that morning.

“He didn’t even see it coming,” Phox said. He was smiling as he tossed the axe up in the air and caught it one-handed.

“It was pretty sweet watching his head spin like that,” Volumnia commented.

“Literally,” Nitya added. They all laughed.

“See?” Eunia said with a small air of impatience. “You’re just as lethal with an axe.”

Phox didn’t even look at Eunia, but Lartius saw his hand shaking as it tightened its grip on the handle of the axe.

“Stop,” Volumnia said to her. “Stop trying to help.”

Clearly there was still tension between them, but they were able to work as a team and eliminate other tributes. Lartius suspected this was what Lyme told Eunia to do when she coached her.

Rendwick listened and waited. He was ready to bolt if they started climbing up the fire escape. But they just turned the corner and kept walking, their laughter still ringing in the air. He was reminded of how he and Lartius talked about their kills in the bloodbath, but he felt this was worse. They talked about it with joy and amusement in their voices. They were truly treating this like a game.

Rendwick waited for their voices and footsteps to fade before he realized he was still holding onto Lartius’ arm. He let go and without saying another word went for the fire escape. Ever since their last lunch before their private sessions, there had been something between them that Rendwick just couldn’t shake. He wasn’t even entirely sure what it was. All he knew was that it came at the worst time possible. He knew that whatever it was, it didn’t belong in the Games.

Lartius was aware that there was something between them, too. He’d get this warm, curious feeling in his abdomen when they maintained eye contact. It was unfamiliar, yet still altogether pleasant. However, despite how comfortable they were with each other, Lartius couldn’t quite bring himself to bring it up.

“Not ready to face them yet?” Lartius finally asked as they climbed down the fire escape.

“No.” Rendwick landed on the sidewalk.

“Me neither. We won’t be able to take all four of them at once. We need to deplete them before we can face them, or try and isolate one of them.”

Rendwick pressed his lips together but didn’t reply. He knew they needed a strategy in the Games, but he hated how casually Lartius talked about it.

Rendwick found a way to change the subject a little. He eyed a streetlight embedded in the sidewalk. “Have you seen any of these turned on?” he asked as Lartius jumped down onto the sidewalk.

Lartius turned to see what he was looking at. “No. But I guess that was the point. This place is supposed to look abandoned. They probably just made these and stuck them around the arena to give a more ominous feeling.”

Rendwick nodded. The Gamemakers not only had to create the arena, but they had to create the right atmosphere that would result in the most exciting Games.

The park in the left-hand side of the arena had a different layout than the one a few blocks up from their hideout. There were more trees here, and more types of trees. They weren’t all the standard leafy green trees. Some of them were pine trees and rose taller than some of the buildings in the arena. There was still a stone fountain right in the middle of the park.

“We should stop,” Rendwick suggested. “We haven’t eaten in a while.”

Lartius nodded. The two of them sat with their backs resting against the basin of the fountain. With the sun beating down on them, the coolness of the fountain was refreshing. Lartius pulled out the bird he’d cooked in the other park. “It’s still warm,” he said as he broke a few pieces off and handed them to Rendwick.

“Do you think the other high-district tributes are gonna be able to get along without getting on each other’s nerves?” Lartius asked.

Rendwick took a sip from his canteen. “I don’t know. Already they’re pretty dysfunctional. And we’ve seen already that Phox has a temper.”

“And he doesn’t like Eunia,” Lartius added

“Do you think he could get so irritated by her that he snaps and kills her?” Rendwick asked.

“It’s possible. He might kill all the girls. It’d be easier to face him by himself. He said he’s strongest with a spear, but you’re the one who has it.”

As they sat there, Rendwick heard movement from inside the trees. It didn’t sound like birds or squirrels. He looked at a couple of the trees and realized that a few tributes were hiding inside them. He tried to remember which districts were still in play, but he remembered that a couple of them already died today. Whoever was hiding in the trees was probably terrified at the sight of them. Rendwick was about to suggest that they keep moving when a wild high-pitched squeaking noise came from a clump of bushes to their right.

Lartius looked up sharply. “The squirrels.”

Rendwick sat up. “Do you think they’ll go for us?”

“I’m not sticking around to find out,” Lartius said, putting his own canteen back in his backpack. “Let’s go.”

He pulled Rendwick to his feet and they left the park. As soon as they were back in the streets, Rendwick could’ve sworn he heard the tributes hiding in the trees sigh with relief.

“Have you been back to the Cornucopia since the bloodbath?” Rendwick asked as they walked off.

Lartius shook his head. “There was a lot going on yesterday. We should go back, though. We can check out whatever supplies everyone might’ve left there.”

They climbed back up the nearest fire escape and started walking back to the right-hand side of the arena, heading south at 17th Street. As they got closer to the Cornucopia, they saw that a sizable amount of supplies were still there. Most of them were weapons, but Lartius saw a few backpacks littered on the ground.

The Cornucopia lay on a large stretch of green grass, like the parks in the arena but no trees or bushes. They climbed down the fire escape. Rendwick wondered how the grass, bushes, and trees in the arena were maintained, or if they were maintained at all. The leftover supplies were grouped around the mouth of the Cornucopia. The ground around the twenty-four pedestals was bare.

Lartius scanned the ground as they passed the pedestals. “Found some arrows,” he said, pointing into the grass.

“Probably Nitya’s,” Rendwick said. He kept checking their surroundings, making sure the coast was clear.

They reached the mouth of the Cornucopia. Lartius looked through a few backpacks but tossed them aside.

“Nothing good in there?” Rendwick asked.

“No. Those were the backpacks I looked through during the bloodbath. I took stuff out of them and put them in my own.”

Rendwick spotted a small dark leather pouch next to one of the empty backpacks. He picked it up and opened it.

“What’s that?” Lartius asked, walking over.

“A blade sharpener,” Rendwick replied, taking it out.

“That’s useful,” Lartius said. “I didn’t see anything like that in any of the other backpacks.”

Rendwick nodded. He zipped the pouch shut and put it in his jacket pocket. “Did you clean out all the backpacks?”

“I don’t think so.” Lartius kicked a few of the empty ones aside as he found another backpack. “Nope,” he said, unzipping it. “This one’s not empty.”

“What d’you got?” Rendwick asked.

“Mostly clothes. Jackets, socks, shirts.” He moved some of it aside. “Cool-looking knife,” he said, taking it out. It had a slim, sleek handle and a curved blade. “I’m keeping this one.” He stuck it inside his jacket.

Rendwick smiled a little. He went to go check a bright white backpack next to a pile of blankets.

“I got rope,” he said, pulling it out. “And a couple bowls. And… extra spearheads. Which I will keep.” He put them in his backpack.

Lartius laughed a little. He left the empty backpacks and went for the rest of the supplies inside the Cornucopia. “There’s not really much left. Mostly just weapons.”

Rendwick dropped the backpack and followed him. “More knives?”

“I’m looking for them.”

Inside the Cornucopia, Rendwick noticed a dark shadow on a crate of ammunition. But when he got to it, he realized it wasn’t a shadow. It was a dried patch of blood. He looked down at the ground. There were dark splotches everywhere. Apparently, when the hovercraft picked up the dead tributes, it didn’t wipe away all the evidence.

Rendwick’s heart began to race a little. He could feel the chaotic energy of the bloodbath swirling in the air around him. He saw shadows of each tribute fall, even though he didn’t see all of them die. But he remembered the boy from District 10, who Lartius had killed, throwing a knife into the side of his neck. He remembered the little girl from District 3 with Lartius’ knife in her back. He remembered the boy from District 8 who he killed to save Lartius. He remembered the girl from District 9 who he almost killed but Phox finished the job before he could. He felt like he was reliving their deaths all over again. All eleven tributes that died in the bloodbath.

“We should go,” Rendwick said. “There’s nothing really useful left here that we haven’t already found.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Lartius said, shrugging. He was about to leave when he did a double take at something in the far corner of the Cornucopia. “Wait a second.” He went over and picked up what looked like a bundle of black clothes until he unrolled it to reveal more knives. “Aha! I knew there were more here.” He rolled it back up and walked out of the Cornucopia. “All right, let’s go.”

Rendwick was glad they were going. He didn’t want to come back the Cornucopia again. Just as they were leaving, Rendwick grabbed one of the rolled-up blankets on the grass and tucked it under his arm.

As they headed back uptown to the hideout, Lartius noticed the orange glow in the sky. He looked up. “The sun’s setting already?”

Rendwick looked up. “This day went by really fast.” He bet that the day would have felt much longer if he’d just stayed in the hideout the whole time.

“Time flies when you’re busy.” Lartius climbed up the nearest fire escape. “Well, at least we got to explore the arena some.”

Rendwick climbed up the fire escape. Lartius was about to keep going but he wasn’t sure which direction the hideout was from the Cornucopia. Rendwick stepped onto the roof. “This way.”

Lartius followed him as they moved several rooftops uptown. He made a mental note to mark in his brain where the hideout was. It’d be easy to remember with the numbered and lettered street signs.

Rendwick was scanning the surrounding area again. He really didn’t like how the Games were making him paranoid. He just wanted to get back to the hideout in one piece. Then, for the third time that day, a cannon went off and made him jump. He looked over at Lartius, then Lartius started to laugh a little.

“What?” Rendwick asked.

“Did you realize that every time a cannon goes off, the first thing we do is look at each other?”

“We do?” Rendwick asked, perplexed.

Lartius nodded.

“Well, the first time the cannon went off, I actually thought it was for you,” Rendwick said to him. “You were busy cooking the bird you got in the park, and when I heard the cannon, I thought for a second that Nitya had shot you from one of the rooftops.”

Lartius nodded again. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense. It’s the Games, you have to be prepared for everything.”

They reached the hideout, still checking to make sure they weren’t being followed, and went inside. Rendwick pushed the panel back into the frame and propped his spear against the wall.

“What stuff did you get from the other backpacks during the bloodbath?” Rendwick asked.

Lartius sat down on the floor and swung his backpack off his shoulders. “Lots of stuff. A lot of food, a tent, blanket, flashlight, some sunglasses, and a first aid kit. You?”

Rendwick sat opposite him. “I got a lot of food, too, plus binoculars and night vision glasses.”

“Night vision glasses?” Lartius dropped his backpack on the ground next to him.

“Yeah. They came in handy last night when I stole the spear from Phox.”

Lartius grinned. “So what do you use this place for?” he asked.

“Just your standard hideout,” Rendwick replied. “And since that camera in the panel is broken, no one knows I’ve been using it. Not even the Gamemakers.”

“So you’ve just been hanging out here?” Lartius asked. “All day?”

Rendwick nodded. He put his backpack on the floor and propped his spear up against the wall.

“You don’t go out at all?”

Rendwick sat down against the wall. “No, I did. I told you I tried finding water yesterday.”

“But you haven’t gone looking for people to kill?”

“No. I haven’t killed anyone since the bloodbath.”

Rendwick was shutting down on him a little. He didn’t look the least bit eager to get into some kind of brawl in the arena.

Lartius put his backpack on the floor and sat down in front of him. “Okay. What’s up?”

“What do you mean?” Rendwick asked.

“Back when we were training, you were all into it. You tried everything, you even figured out how to incorporate bo staff skill with your spear skills. And now it’s like you’re not even into it.”

“Well, because the training was actually kind of fun, and it took my mind off the Games. It wasn’t until the scores went up that I remembered, ‘Oh, yeah. All of this was so that I could kill other people.’”

Lartius was surprised. He had never heard Rendwick talk about the Games like this. Come to think of it, he’d never heard anyone talk about the Games like this. At least no one he knew.

“So you’re not really a fan of all this?” Lartius asked him.

“Basically. My main goal here is just to survive. If I had my way, I’d just stay in here and only kill in self-defense.”

“If you had your way,” Lartius repeated. “I take it you don’t have your way?”

“I’m a tribute from District 4. Everyone at home is expecting me to do well, and I bet some of the Capitol citizens are, too.” Rendwick pulled out the bread from his backpack and the half of the bird he didn’t finish in the park. “It’s a lot of pressure on me. I’m sure it’s the same for you.”

“Well, kind of.” Lartius took out some food from his own backpack. “Like I told you back during training, I was kind of the underdog of all the guys so people didn’t expect me to do well. Instead of adding pressure, it gave me something to prove.”

“So, our plans for the arena were pretty different.” Rendwick broke off a piece of bread.

“And yet here we are, allies,” Lartius said.

“I don’t think that had anything to do with our strategies for the Games,” Rendwick countered. “Really, I wanted to team up with you because I wanted a familiar face in the arena that I could trust not to stab me in the back. Both literally and figuratively.” He broke off another piece of bread and handed it to Lartius.

Lartius took it, smiling to himself.

As the sun set, it became gradually harder to see inside the room. When Rendwick reached for his canteen, his hand brushed Lartius’. He felt tiny volts of electricity shoot up his arms and legs, and quickly pulled his hand back.

“Hang on,” he heard Lartius say. He heard a zipper, some muffled shuffling, and a click. Lartius had turned on his flashlight and propped it up next to his backpack, illuminating the room a little more. “There. Much better.”

They did their best not to eat all their food. They had to ration everything. Rendwick put away his bread before he could mow through it.

“What did you get in your backpack in terms of food?” Lartius asked him.

“Uhhhh…” Rendwick went back to his backpack and opened it. “Bread, some dried beef, and some powder I can add to water and make soup. Not much. What about you?”

“Some rabbit, dried fruit, bread, and crackers,” Lartius replied. Rendwick heard the zipper of his backpack. “They don’t really stock the backpacks with a lot of food.”

“They’d make it too easy if they gave us a lot of food. Plus, the sponsors tend to give food, too.”

Lartius nodded.

They heard music playing faintly outside. They looked back at each other.

“The anthem,” Lartius said.

They both got up and carefully went out onto the fire escape. They searched for the Capitol seal in the sky. The first face to show up was the girl from District 8. Then came the guy from District 12, the one he and Rendwick saw decapitated, lifted into the hovercraft. Lartius suspected the girl from Eight was the one who died of electrocution. Finally, the guy from District 9. Lartius didn’t know what happened to him.

There were ten people left. Both tributes from One, Two, Four, Five, the guy from Three, and the girl from Twelve. The music ended and the Capitol seal vanished. Rendwick and Lartius went back inside.

Rendwick slid down the wall and sat down. His eyes were on the panel, but his mind was still on the faces of the fallen tributes.

Lartius seemed to realize that. He sat down next to him. “What’s on your mind?”

Rendwick stared down at his knees for a while before he reached for his spear. He needed to keep his hands busy. “Every time I see a tribute’s face in the sky, I can’t help but think of their parents. Over the past forty-two years, nine-hundred-sixty-six people have died. That makes nine-hundred-sixty-six broken families. And that’s not counting the fourteen that have already died this year.”

“Wow. You did your research.” Lartius couldn’t really think of anything else to say.

Rendwick gave a half-nod-half-shrug.

“Why do you hate it so much?” Lartius asked.

“I just feel like we were meant to do better things than to kill each other in an arena for other people’s entertainment,” Rendwick said.

Lartius raised his eyebrows. He never thought of it that way.

“Did you always feel this way?” he asked.

Rendwick shook his head. He opened his mouth to continue, and then closed it.

“You don’t have to tell me-”

“No, it’s fine,” Rendwick said. He ran a knuckle along the blade of the spear. It caught the light of the flashlight and bounced off the chipped walls. “When I was thirteen, my neighbor was picked for the Games. She had just turned twelve the day before the Reaping, so she didn’t even get a chance to train in the Training Center.” He pictured her chestnut-brown hair and wide eyes, similar to the girl from District 3. “She was just at such a disadvantage heading into the arena. I wanted to volunteer to take her place, but guys can’t volunteer for girls. And what’s worse, nobody else volunteered to take her place, not even the older girls.”

“How well did you know her?” Lartius asked.

“Pretty well. We didn’t go to the same school, but we would play on the shores together a lot. Her older brother taught us how to swim. She was the only friend I had who was a girl. All the friends I had I school were boys.”

Rendwick put down the spear. He drew his knees into his chest and hooked his arms around his ankles. “She probably had the worst odds out of all the high-district tributes. But she managed to survive the bloodbath at the Cornucopia. Then, it came down to her and four other tributes and I thought she was gonna make it.” Rendwick felt his breath hitch in his chest and stopped for a second. “Then, this sadistic guy from District 1 found her.” He shut his eyes. “He tortured her for about five hours before he killed her.” He did his best not to picture what he saw on television five years ago, but there was no blocking out her terrified face from his memory. He could practically hear her screams again and squeezed his eyes more tightly shut. “He ended up winning. And in his victory interview, he said she was a special case. He wanted to give everyone a good show.”

Rendwick thought back to when he and Lartius almost ran into the pack of high-district tributes that morning. If I find whoever took my spear, I’ll make sure I give everyone watching a good show. Those words made his stomach clench again.

“I remember I flew into a rage after she was killed. At first, it was about the guy from One who made her suffer. But then it became about the Capitol, because they put them in the arena in the first place. My parents did their best to calm me down, and they told me to never talk about the Capitol like that ever again. They said the Capitol had done so much for us. They were trying to keep me out of trouble.”

Rendwick rested his chin on his knee, his eyes staring at the floor. “I think my dad might’ve sent for reinforcements because the next day at the Training Center, all the boys were given a lesson on not showing emotion, because emotion is weakness. They hammered it into our skulls.” He fiddled with the hem of his pants. “Ever since, to keep myself out of trouble like my parents wanted, I just kept my mouth shut and did what I was told. No complaints.”

Lartius stared at the floor, his eyes darting from side to side. His mind was still on the past Hunger Games. It sounded awfully familiar.

“What was her name?” Lartius asked quietly. “Your neighbor?”

Rendwick paused for a second. “Trexa Holmes.”

Lartius felt a horrible chill run through his body. He remembered those Games. He and his friends had re-enacted them. They loved re-enacting old Hunger Games on the playground at school. Thankfully though, Lartius never played the victor from District 1.

DISTRICT 1 Phox Baxwoll Volumnia Roxen
DISTRICT 2 Lartius Rankine Eunia Allardyce
DISTRICT 3 Alto Whishart Fannia Lapworth
DISTRICT 4 Rendwick Combe Nitya Flamsteed
DISTRICT 5 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 6 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 7 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 8 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 9 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 10 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 11 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 12 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE

The Move

Rendwick slept badly that night. Trexa Holmes and the girl from District 3 wove in and out of his dreams, as did Phox and the victor from District 1 who killed Trexa. His vision in his dream was blurred and foggy. He couldn’t see where he was or where he was going. He heard a horrible scream in the air and found himself climbing up trees and jumping over bushes to find the source. But right before he turned a corner, he realized he was unarmed. He saw Phox and the District 1 victor standing over the dead bodies of Trexa and the girl from District 3. To his inexplicable horror, he also saw Lartius on the floor, badly injured. Phox rammed the blade of the spear right into Lartius’ stomach, and Rendwick woke with a start.

Rendwick instinctively looked over at Lartius, who was sound asleep. He became aware that Lartius was only a few feet away from him. His mind played back segments from yesterday, Lartius finding his hideout, when the first cannon boomed and Rendwick thought it was for him, all the conversations they had. Of everything that happened between them yesterday, the one thing that stood out most was when their hands touched last night. He suspected that this was why Lartius appeared in his nightmare.

He’d been gazing at the opposite wall as he pondered all this, but when his periphery caught sight of Lartius stirring in his sleep, he immediately turned onto his other side. He tried to get a few more minutes of sleep, but his mind was still on Lartius. He was surprised at how well they worked together despite their very different strategies for the Games. He wondered how they managed to make it work, and remembered what he said last night: they already knew each other, so they were able to trust each other. It was only when he was with Lartius that he didn’t hate the Games.

He was about to think that it was like they’d never been apart, but he realized that wasn’t entirely true. Things had certainly changed between them. They weren’t eight year olds building a sandcastle on the shores of District 4. They were eighteen (or almost eighteen, in Lartius’ case), they had grown up a lot since they first met. The air between them had even changed since their first day of training in the Capitol. At this point, they didn’t feel like allies or friends, at least not to Rendwick. There was something else between them.

Unbeknownst to Rendwick, Lartius had been lying awake for a half hour already. He was using his backpack as a pillow, staring at the opposite wall. He’d tried to go back to sleep but it was hopeless. He’d jumped under his blanket when he heard Rendwick wake up so abruptly. He gripped the strap of his backpack.

Lartius had felt pretty calm and confident yesterday, but right now he was a nervous wreck. He could feel Rendwick’s presence right behind him, even though he was several feet away. He flexed the hand that had brushed Rendwick’s last night. The sensation he got when they touched was completely new to Lartius. He didn’t really know what it was. His life back home was spent in the Training Center most of the time. Apart from school, he didn’t really know anything else.

Lartius could tell that the sun was rising. A dull light was slowly filling up the room. One thing Lartius didn’t like about the arena was his perception of time. A lot of the time, it felt like it went by incredibly fast. Too fast. But now he felt like time had slowed down painfully. Now that he was actually part of the Games, he wasn’t sure if the Games were broadcasted in real time. Given how his days seemed to pass by in the blink of an eye, he wondered if the Gamemakers worked the arena to give everyone in it a different sense of time than the rest of Panem.

Lartius decided to give up on getting more sleep. He sat up, stretched his neck, and rolled up his blanket. It took a while before Rendwick sat up, too.

“Couldn’t sleep either?” Lartius asked him.

“No,” Rendwick replied. He folded up his own blanket and tossed it by the wall.

Lartius could tell by the tone of his voice that Rendwick wasn’t a morning person. He decided not to suggest they leave the hideout to get more water and food. Lartius pulled out his canteen and some bread. “Let’s just give ourselves time to really wake up before we get moving.”

Rendwick nodded. He shifted himself so he sat with his back against the wall. Lartius offered him a piece of bread.

“Thanks,” Rendwick said, taking it.

“Not a morning person?” Lartius asked.

“Well, not everyday.” Rendwick got his canteen and his own bread out of his backpack. “On weekends I get up at dawn to go fishing. But I’ve been waking up early every day since the Reaping, and it’s been driving me nuts.”

“I’m with you on that,” Lartius said.

“Apparently, people in the Capitol sleep in later than we do, though,” Rendwick stated. “That’s why the Games start at ten in the morning. The rest of Panem has already been up for a couple hours, maybe more.”

“Phox used to live in the Capitol,” Lartius said, thinking back to the night of the interviews. “I can’t imagine living there at all.”

“Me neither,” Rendwick replied. “But I don’t think anyone here can see themselves living anywhere else than where they do now. It’s familiar, it’s comforting, and it’s all they’ve known.”

Lartius nodded. “Good point.”

Rendwick’s mind was stuck on the night of the interviews, but he’d moved on from Phox to Lartius coming out to all of Panem.

“You know,” Rendwick began.

Lartius looked at him.

“I kind of still can’t believe you talked about your sexuality in your interview. You acted like it was just no big deal.”

“Well, because it was no big deal. Like I said in my interview, everyone at home already knew. It wasn’t a secret.”

“So everyone was cool with it?” Rendwick asked.

“Yeah. I mean, for the most part. But I did get the odd person who thought that I was spying on them in the changing room at the Training Center. I hate that. I’m like, ‘Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I’m attracted to every guy I see. Don’t flatter yourself.’”

“Did you ever, you know, date anyone back home?” Rendwick asked.

“No. I practically lived in the Training Center. I didn’t have time to find out who else was gay in District 2.”

Rendwick nodded.

Lartius took a drink from his canteen. “I almost told Brutus - my mentor - that I didn’t want to answer questions about my sexuality in my interview.”

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t want that to be all that people were gonna talk about. There’s more to me than who I find attractive.”

“Well, it may not have been a big deal for you, but I think it was. I thought it was really brave.”

Lartius let out a noise that sounded a little like a snort.

“I did,” Rendwick said. He looked down at the floor. “I wish I could’ve been that brave.”

Lartius looked up and around at Rendwick. “Wait. Are you…?”

Rendwick nodded.

There was silence for a while. The two of them stared around at the walls, ceiling, and floor, trying to think of something else to say.

“You’re the first person I’ve ever told,” Rendwick finally said.

Lartius looked at him in surprise. “Really? Not even your family knows?”

Rendwick shook his head. “Remember when I told you about how I was taught not to show weakness when I was thirteen? Well, I felt like coming out to my family would do that. I was taught not to talk about my personal life, so that nothing I said could be used against me. I had to kind of keep everything inside.”

Lartius didn’t say anything. They sat in silence again. Lartius felt some of the nerves he felt earlier this morning fade off. Something stirred inside him at the thought of being the only person Rendwick ever came out to. Lartius had learned before that some people weren’t entirely comfortable talking about their sexuality, especially if they were gay, for fear of persecution and ostracism. He remembered what Rendwick said last night: I wanted to team up with you because I wanted a familiar face in the arena that I could trust not to stab me in the back. Clearly Rendwick had developed a deeper form of trust in Lartius, since he hadn’t even told his parents.

“Well,” Lartius finally said, “I mean, I kind of get how you thought coming out might make you look weak to some people, but I can’t believe you didn’t tell your family. My parents were the first people I told.”

“I guess our families are just different. I mean, yeah I’m really close with my family, but for some reason I just wasn’t ready to tell them, you know?”

Lartius nodded. “No, I get that. You just wanted to go at your own pace.”

“Did you always know?” Rendwick asked.

“That I was gay? Uh no, not really. I kind of figured it out when I was thirteen. My friends at school kind of dated around, but girls didn’t really do anything for me. I’ve liked guys but that’s really as far as it ever went.”

“Yeah, that’s how it was for me, too.” He stared at the floor. “I’ve never met someone who went through all this like I did.”

“No one?”

“Well, I didn’t go around looking for anyone else who was gay, just like you didn’t.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t have time for it. What’s your excuse?” Lartius challenged.

“I was just paranoid, I guess, that if I went around asking those kinds of questions that people would figure out that I was gay. And I really wasn’t ready to tell anyone yet.”

“But you are now.” Lartius put his canteen down. “What changed?”

“Your interview,” Rendwick answered. “And the fact that you don’t consider it a big deal.”

“Well, I guess it’s just different with everyone. You weren’t comfortable telling anyone, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just how you feel.”

Rendwick leaned his head on the wall again. “I’ve actually been dying to tell someone. It kept building up inside me. And usually, I don’t have a problem keeping things bottled up. I’m good at compartmentalizing and all, but this was eating me alive.” He took a drink from his canteen. “I figured you’d be the only person I knew who’d understand.”

“Was it really that bad, though?” Lartius asked.

“Well,” Rendwick ate a piece of bread. “I know you said there’s more to you than just being gay, but it’s still a part of who you are. Keeping all that hidden felt like I was lying about myself. That’s why I liked how you talked about it in your interview like it was nothing. You were so comfortable talking about it. I want to get there at some point.”

Lartius nodded. “I’m sure you’ll get there, at whichever pace you go.”

Rendwick felt as if a large weight had been lifted off his chest. He was glad he was able to come out to someone and know for sure what the outcome would be. He wanted a situation like that to give him a little self-confidence so he could muster the courage to tell his parents one day.

“Thanks for being cool,” Rendwick said.

“Of course,” Lartius replied.

Rendwick’s eyes found Lartius’. He felt like a magnetic pull was causing him to hold Lartius’ gaze. It was like the third day of training while they waited for their names to be called for their private sessions. He couldn’t make himself look away, nor did he actually want to look away.

Lartius felt something stir inside him again, around his chest. He’d thought about that moment before his private session a lot. It was one of those moments he kept replaying in his mind. But replaying a moment like that wasn’t quite the same as living through it.

A sudden clanging on the fire escape outside jolted them out of their reverie. Rendwick jumped up and reached for his spear, but the footsteps kept going down the fire escape without stopping. Rendwick carefully approached the panel, listening intently, and heard a pair of feet land on the sidewalk.

Rendwick let out a breath. “It’s the only downside to this place, the fact that people use the fire escape out there. It’ll drive you nuts.”

“I’ll bet,” Lartius said. Rendwick saw him slip his knives back into his jacket.

“Well, at least I’m awake now,” Rendwick said with a smile.

Lartius laughed. Rendwick put his food and canteen back into his backpack and slipped it over his shoulders.

“Has anyone else found this place?” Lartius asked.

Rendwick extended his hand and pulled Lartius to his feet. “Besides you? No.”

“How did you even find out about this place and no one else did?” Lartius put his things away in his own backpack.

“Luck. Pure luck and good timing. The bloodbath wasn’t over yet and no one was around. I took my chance while I still could.”

They put away their food and water. Rendwick grabbed his spear and they both left the hideout, pulling the panel shut before they went up to the roof.

“Where should we go today?” Rendwick asked.

“We can check out the third park in the arena,” Lartius suggested. “It’s somewhere in the center,” he pointed, “but more uptown.”

“How do you know there are three parks?” Rendwick asked as they walked across the rooftops.

“I went up to the roof of the tallest building in the arena.” Lartius pointed again. “You can see a lot from up there. We can go up there later today.”

Rendwick nodded. “Yeah. That sounds good.”

Lartius spotted the tops of the trees protruding over some of the building several blocks uptown. He sped up his walk a little. He was running out of water and he wanted to make sure his and Rendwick’s food supply didn’t deteriorate. At the corner of 38th Street and 9th Avenue, they reached the building nearest to the park and went down the fire escape.

Lartius dropped down onto the sidewalk and crossed the street. He stood at the edge of the park, looking into the trees. He spotted a bird on a low branch in one of the trees and pulled out one of his smaller knives. He threw it and got it right in the bird’s side. It fell out of the tree with a soft thud. Rendwick grinned as he watched Lartius go to fetch his kill.

A faint noise from beyond the trees made Lartius straighten up sharply. He turned towards Rendwick, jerked his head towards the trees, and mouthed, “Do you hear that?”

Rendwick listened. There were voices behind the trees. They started to get louder, and Rendwick recognized one of the voices: Phox.

“Let’s move,” Rendwick said in a low voice.

Lartius cast one last look at his knife speared through the dead bird and followed Rendwick behind the nearest building. From where they were hiding, they could see a pile of backpacks and weapons by the basin of the stone fountain. They saw a pair of feet from the gap underneath the pine trees and flattened themselves against the wall as much as they could.

“Just the axe or the sword, too?” Nitya’s voice cut through the air.

“Just the axe,” came Phox’s reply, faintly.

Rendwick and Lartius chanced a glance around the corner of the building and saw that Nitya’s back was turned. Rendwick hoped they were leaving soon. Nitya looked through all their supplies for Phox’s axe. Lartius found it odd that Phox would even spend a second in the arena unarmed. Without even thinking, Lartius’ hand slid into his jacket and pulled out one of his knives. Rendwick felt him move behind him and looked around.

“What are you doing?” he whispered.

“I can get her,” Lartius whispered back, weighing the knife in his hand. “One shot. She won’t see it coming.”

Rendwick remembered what Lartius said about isolating one of the pack and getting them with their back turned, but this was very risky. He knew Lartius was good with knives, but they had one shot. Before he could try and talk Lartius out of it, he heard Nitya scream.

He and Lartius peered around the building again. They saw Nitya on her back in the middle of the road, pinned by a wiry guy in a dark green jacket.

“Is that the guy from Three?” Rendwick asked Lartius.

“Yeah. Alto,” Lartius replied.

Alto had his forearm across Nitya’s throat. “All right, District 4,” he said to her. “Where’s your partner?”

“What?” Nitya asked, terrified. Her hands struggled to get his forearm off her throat.

“Where’s the guy from your district?” he yelled.

Rendwick felt his blood turn to ice. Lartius instinctively reached for Rendwick’s elbow.

“He’s not with us!” Nitya screamed. “He went off on his own!”

“Liar! Tell me where he is!”

“I don’t know! I don’t know!”

Teeth bared in rage, Alto took Nitya by the shoulders and banged her repeatedly on the surface of the road. Rendwick swore he heard loud crunches when her head collided with the street. After three blows, Nitya stopped moving. Alto released her and stood up. About a second later, the cannon went off.

Rendwick and Lartius just stared. They’d seen their fair share of brutal deaths in the Games, but watching it happen up close was horrifying. Faint voices sifted through the air and Alto looked to his right. Rendwick saw Phox, Volumnia, and Eunia on their way back.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be here,” Rendwick said.

“Yeah, I think you’re right,” Lartius replied, nodding. He was still holding onto Rendwick’s arm but let go when they started running off.

Rendwick heard Volumnia yelling for Nitya. He pulled Lartius into the next alley. “If they come this way, we can go up the fire escape and keep running.” Lartius nodded.

“Oh hell no,” came Eunia’s voice. “You came to the wrong neighborhood, you son of a bitch!”

“Where are the guys from Two and Four?” Alto yelled.

Lartius froze in the alley, his eyes wide. Rendwick cast a worried look at him.

“They’re not with us, asshole!” Eunia yelled back. “They’re probably off together somewhere!”

“Take his weapon,” Phox ordered.

“I don’t have a weapon,” Alto spat back. “I don’t need one.”

There was silence for a while. Then the girls seemed to protest a little.

“Phox, what are you doing?”

“You better be going somewhere with this.”

“Easy,” he said. “I got this.” Rendwick heard footsteps. “You killed her with your bare hands?”

“I smashed her head into the road,” Alto replied.

There was a small pause before Phox asked, “What was your training score?”

“Nine.”

“Nine? For a District 3 tribute? You don’t see that every year.”

There was more silence. Lartius was very confused. It sounded like they were negotiating. High-district tributes had a tendency to keep to themselves. They didn’t even talk to people from other districts.

There were more footsteps. It sounded like Phox was pacing.

“All right,” Phox finally said. “Instead of pounding you and splattering your brains all over the place for everyone to see, I’m gonna let you join us.”

“What?” the girls yelled.

“He’s useful!” he said impatiently. “And if he wants to kill Two and Four so badly, we’ll help him get there. If it means less tributes in the arena, you should both be in.”

“What the hell is so important about the guys from Two and Four anyway?” Volumnia asked.

“One of those jackasses killed Fannia,” Alto said furiously. “The girl from my district. She was thirteen years old, and they showed no mercy. I don’t know which one did it, and it’s killing me. So really, the solution is that I have to kill them both.”

“Okay. We can get you there. Are you in or not?” Phox asked.

There was another pause. “Yeah. I’m in.”

“All right. When we find them, they’re all yours.”

“Whoa, whoa, slow down,” Eunia interjected. “Four you can have. Two is mine. He’s been mine since the bloodbath.”

“Wait,” Alto said to her. “Aren’t you from Two?”

“What’s your point?” Eunia asked.

There was a beat before Alto said, “Fair enough. As long as they’re both dead.”

“But,” Phox said loudly to grab their attention again, “the guys from Two and Four are not the only people in this arena. Anyone else we find along the way is dead, too. Got it? Now, let’s get moving.”

There were a few indistinguishable words of assent, and then sounds of movement. Rendwick could hear weapons clink together as they gathered up all their things. He listened intently waiting for their footsteps to fade off. Lartius was still breathing a little heavily. Rendwick became aware of just how close they were in the alley. He moved down the wall of the building and carefully peered around the building. He saw them all walk a few blocks uptown and take a right.

“They’re gone,” Rendwick said.

“Are you sure?” Lartius asked. He’d left the alley but hadn’t moved up as far as Rendwick did.

“They took a right on 42nd Street. We’re in the clear.”

Lartius nodded. He moved forward to get the bird he’d killed and retrieve his knife.

“Well, we lost one problem, but we gained another,” Rendwick said. “And a more vicious one at that.”

“I can’t believe they let him join,” Lartius said. “He killed one of their allies.”

“Have you ever seen that in the Games before?”

“Never.” Lartius looked up the road leading to 42nd Street. “You said they took a right?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“I was thinking we shouldn’t stick around here, since they just left. They’re too close by.”

Rendwick pursed his lips together, thinking. “We could head to the park we went to yesterday, on the west side of the arena.”

Lartius nodded. He pulled the knife out of the dead bird and stuck it back inside his jacket. He stuck the dead bird inside his backpack and wiped his hands on his pants. They walked down 38th Street and climbed up the nearest fire escape on 12th Avenue.

They continued walking to the park on the west side in silence. Rendwick could still feel the ghost of Lartius’ hand on his elbow. Lartius was walking on his left-hand side. Rendwick felt the fingers on his left hand twitch, as if they were reaching for Lartius for a second.

“I wish we had a better way of telling time than just the position of the sun,” Lartius said. “It feels like time speeds up one moment then slows down the next.”

“Maybe we can get one of our sponsors to send us a watch or something,” Rendwick said.

Lartius laughed a little. He thought back to his theory that the Gamemakers manipulated the arena to make time pass as a certain speed. He had a feeling that if they did get a watch from a sponsor, it would ruin the illusion of time the Gamemakers had created in the arena.

Rendwick was glancing around the streets. “The park is on 16th Avenue, but I think we’re too far uptown.” He stood on the balls of his feet and looked over to his left, craning his neck to see over some of the buildings. “Yeah, I see trees over there.”

As the moved further downtown, Lartius became aware that it was much hotter in the arena than it was the last couple of days. He could feel the sun beating down on him in his dark gray jacket. As they reached 29th Street, he finally saw the pine trees protruding from behind a couple of the shorter buildings. He wiped his forehead on the sleeve of his jacket.

The two of them reached the corner of 16th Avenue and 21st Street and climbed down the fire escape. Rendwick glanced around the streets as they crossed over into the park and scanned the park to see if anyone was there. He didn’t see anyone. He doubted anyone would be hiding in the trees today.

They went for the fountain first, refilling their canteens. Rendwick drank a lot of it and refilled his canteen again. He looked up at the sky.

“Is it just me or is it a lot hotter today than it’s been the last couple of days?” Rendwick asked.

“No, it’s not just you,” Lartius answered. He screwed the cap back on his canteen and tucked it into his backpack.

Rendwick put his own canteen away as Lartius scanned the trees. For a second, Rendwick thought he was looking for anyone hiding inside them, but relaxed when Lartius found another bird in the branches.

“You’re gonna kill another one?” Rendwick asked.

“Why not? We’ll each get our own today instead of just half.” Lartius took out one of his short knives. In a whirl of silver, the bird was dead. Lartius went to retrieve it and took out the bird he’d already killed in the other park.

“I can cook them if you want,” Rendwick offered.

“Yeah, sure,” Lartius said, nodding.

He gave Rendwick the two birds and he got to plucking off the feathers and cleaning out the birds. Lartius broke off a couple of branches from the nearest tree and passed those to him. Rendwick laid his spear on the ground, took out his matches from his backpack, and lit a fire over the broken branches, skewering the birds on a couple of extra sticks and hovering them over the fire.

Lartius had a knife in each hand, his back turned as he kept watch. Rendwick felt he was the better choice to keep watch if anyone came. Rendwick could only throw his spear once, but Lartius had multiple shots to get the job done. Hopefully, roasting two birds at the same time wouldn’t take much longer than just one.

Rendwick kept shooting glances at Lartius, but he didn’t turn around. The heat from the fire coupled with the heat in the rest of the arena was becoming uncomfortable. Rendwick shrugged off his jacket, draping it over his backpack next to him. He was getting a little antsy waiting for the birds to be done. When he looked over at Lartius one more time, he suddenly remembered he was on national television and immediately looked away.

As Lartius kept watch, there were several moments when he felt Rendwick’s eyes on him. He didn’t turn around. The day was filled with these moments that lasted for a few seconds and ended abruptly with no explanation. If they’d been in a different situation, they would probably talk about it, and figure out what was going on. But the timing could not be worse. All Lartius knew was that whatever he felt towards Rendwick did not belong in the Games.

“Done,” Rendwick said from behind him.

“Both of them?” Lartius asked.

“Yeah.” Rendwick turned the birds over, checking to see if he’d burned them at all, then stamped out the fire. “Should we stick around here for a while?” Rendwick asked. “There’s shade.”

Lartius nodded. Rendwick passed him one of the birds and they sat underneath one of the bigger trees in the park to eat. Lartius put his backpack on the ground next to him.

It was probably one of the most uncomfortable meals either of them had during the Games. They had a million things to say to each other, but they couldn’t make themselves say it. There were cameras everywhere. The only safe place to spill their guts was the hideout. Lartius knew that Rendwick wasn’t ready to come out to the rest of Panem like he did, so any topic even remotely related to that would have to wait until they got back to the hideout.

The shade under the trees was a little cooler than being in direct sunlight, but not by much. Rendwick was already halfway done with his bird. He could feel the cameras focusing on the two of them. He felt very exposed, on display. He knew the Gamemakers and the people watching were waiting for one of them to say or do something. They had more freedom to say what they wanted back at the hideout.

“Did you know Nitya well?” Lartius finally asked, breaking the silence.

Rendwick took a beat before he answered. “Not really. We knew of each other back home, but we weren’t really friends or anything.”

Lartius nodded. “Same with me and Eunia.” He stared at the discarded bones on the ground next to his backpack. “I was always curious why you two didn’t become allies.”

“I don’t think she wanted me as an ally.”

“Yeah, but I don’t get why. Both of you are really skilled, and you both scored tens in your private sessions.”

“I think she expected me to team up with Phox and Volumnia, too, and when I didn’t she had to choose between them and me.”

Lartius nodded.

“Did the same thing happen with you and Eunia?” Rendwick asked.

Lartius shook his head. “Eunia’s always seemed like this independent person. She does whatever she wants and doesn’t care.”

“She seems pretty arrogant, too.”

“She has pretty high expectations of herself. You remember what she said to Caesar about her training score.” He dropped another empty bone into his pile. “She’s something of a perfectionist. We go to school together and she always wants to be the best at everything.”

“I don’t think that’s even possible, to be the best at everything.”

“Try telling her that.”

Rendwick dropped one of his empty bones into his own pile. He heard movement from the tree they were sitting under, which startled him a little. Oh, right, he thought to himself. We’re still in the Games. He started scanning the streets and rooftops to see if anyone was coming.

“Rendwick, check this out,” Lartius said suddenly.

“What?” He looked over to where Lartius was pointing. It was a patch of grass that had suddenly dried out. It looked like a clump of straw.

“That wasn’t there yesterday,” Rendwick said slowly.

Lartius plucked one of the dried grass blades and rubbed it between his fingertips. “This kind of stuff only happens when there’s a drought.”

To his left, Rendwick heard a high-pitched trickling sound. He looked over at the fountain and saw that the stream of water had thinned. It was no longer rising up into the air. It was trickling down into the basin. Rendwick and Lartius looked at each other.

“A drought now?” Rendwick asked.

“It explains the heat out here,” Lartius said. He took off his jacket and tied the sleeves around one of the straps of his backpack. Rendwick took his own jacket and tucked it in the front pocket of his backpack.

“We’re gonna have to take it easy on the water,” Lartius said.

“During a drought? I don’t really think that’s safe. We don’t know how long it’s gonna last.”

“If the water’s disappearing here, it’s probably disappearing in the other parks. We need to save it.”

Lartius stood up and wiped his hands off. “We should get moving. I said I would show you how to get to the tallest building.” He put on his backpack, then extended a hand and pulled Rendwick to his feet. “If we stay on the west side, the buildings will shield us from the sun.”

Rendwick nodded. He put on his own backpack and picked up his spear. They decided not to climb onto the rooftops yet to avoid the sun beating down on them as much as they could.

“We can’t avoid the sun forever, though,” Lartius said. “Once we get further uptown, we have to head for the rooftops again.”

It was a long walk to 65th Street. Rendwick was glad they were shaded from the sun as they walked, but he was getting thirsty. He kept wiping his forearm over his forehead. When he dropped his hand back to his side, it brushed Lartius’, like it did last night. Rendwick felt his body stiffen at the touch. Neither of them said anything. They never actually talked about these moments, so Rendwick had to try and make sense of them in his head.

Lartius felt his breath catch in his chest when Rendwick’s hand brushed his. He felt some of the nerves from this morning climb back up his throat and that sensation around his chest. He forced himself to keep a straight face and breathe evenly. All these little moments were on his mind all day. Chances are they would just stay in there. Lartius had a tendency to live inside his head. And given that Rendwick said he was good at compartmentalizing, he was probably the same.

When they finally reached 65th Street, Lartius led Rendwick up the fire escape and made their way towards the center of the arena. Lartius kept his head down so he didn’t have to squint in the harsh sunlight. They moved down 65th Street, past 15th and 14th Avenue. When they got to 13th Avenue, Lartius felt Rendwick put his hand on his shoulder, stopping him in his tracks. He froze at the touch.

“What?” Lartius asked, turning to look at him.

“There’s someone down there,” Rendwick said, indicating the sidewalk just in front of the building.

Lartius looked down at where he was pointing. He saw a dark figure sitting on the curb of the sidewalk, their backpack next to them. “Who is it?”

“I can’t really tell from up here. Hang on.” Rendwick reached into his backpack and pulled out his binoculars.

“Who’s left in the Games now?” Lartius asked.

“Uhhhh…” Rendwick tilted his head back, fidgeting with the dial on his binoculars. “Besides us, Phox, Alto, Eunia, and Volumnia, not a lot. I think both tributes from Five are still alive. And the girl from District 12.”

He looked through the binoculars and focused on the shadowed figure. “It’s a girl,” he said slowly. “I think it’s the girl from Five.”

“Let me see,” Lartius said. Rendwick passed him the binoculars. He pressed them to his eyes. “Yeah, it’s the girl from Five.”

Before he could hand back the binoculars, he heard movement from down on the sidewalk. He looked back down and saw Phox, Alto, Eunia, and Volumnia advancing on the girl from Five. She was trying to scramble to her feet, but they were getting way too close for her to get away. He felt Rendwick pull him backwards on the rooftop and out of sight.

“How do we always keep running into them?” Rendwick said to Lartius. “This arena is huge and we still seem to find them at least twice every day.”

Lartius would’ve laughed if he couldn’t hear what was going on down on the sidewalk. Rendwick had pulled him too far back so they couldn’t see anything. All he heard was the girl from Five’s terrified screams and the clang of weapons as she was being killed. After a while, there was silence. Then, the cannon went off. Lartius heard indistinguishable chatter as the high-district tributes walked off. Lartius looked at Rendwick. He was staring down at the street, his mouth slightly open.

“You okay?” Lartius asked.

Rendwick nodded. “That just sounded really brutal.”

Lartius nodded sympathetically in return. He was about to keep moving when he realized Rendwick was still holding onto his arm.

“You don’t have to keep doing that,” Lartius said.

“Doing what?” Rendwick asked.

“Keep holding me back like that whenever we come across them. I can protect myself.”

“I know you can,” Rendwick said reasonably. “But it doesn’t hurt to have someone else on your side. I bet you’d do the same for me.”

Lartius pressed his lips together and nodded a little. “All right, let’s keep going. We’re almost there.”

Rendwick finally let go of his arm and let him lead the way. When they reached 11th Avenue, Lartius took a left and they went past 66th Street. Rendwick noticed the rooftops they traveled on got higher and higher.

When they reached 78th Street, Lartius slowed down. “There,” he said, pointing. “That’s the wire.”

Rendwick saw the thick wire strung from two sturdy poles and the rings attached down the length of it. The rings were thinner than he pictured them. He hoped they were strong enough to hold the both of them.

“We have to use the wire to get across?” Rendwick asked. He cast a nervous look at the much shorter building underneath the wire.

“Yeah. The rings are safe to touch but the wire isn’t,” Lartius said. “I told you this yesterday.”

Rendwick looked up at the rings then at the spear in his hand. He could climb the fire escapes in the arena carrying it, but he didn’t want to risk doing the same here. It seemed too dangerous.

“What?” Lartius asked.

“I’m trying to figure out how I’m gonna cross the wire with my spear.”

Lartius nodded. “Yeah. You probably don’t wanna leave it behind.”

“Is there another way up there?” Rendwick asked.

“Yeah,” Lartius replied, “you can take the long way from 30th Avenue and go all the way around. But this way’s quicker.”

Lartius looked around, hoping to find a way to help Rendwick. His eyes fell on the front of Rendwick’s backpack. He stepped closer to take a better look.

“What?” Rendwick asked, twisting his neck in Lartius’ direction.

“I think I have an idea,” Lartius said. “Look at the front of your backpack.”

Rendwick shook his backpack off his shoulders. There were thick straps across the front of it. Rendwick pulled on one of them to test how strong it was. He placed the handle of the spear on top of the straps.

He nodded. “Yeah, I think it could fit.” He strapped his spear onto the front of his backpack and tightened the straps as much as he could. He shook his backpack around a little to make sure it wouldn’t fall off. “All right, I’m good.”

Lartius jumped up, grabbed onto the rings, and started making his way across the wire. “Whatever you do,” he said loudly, “don’t look down.”

Rendwick put his backpack back on and grabbed onto the rings. He moved very quickly down the wire, just wanting to get to the other side as fast as he could. He saw how far the drop was from the wire to the building below it. That and the thinness of the rings were making him nervous.

Lartius heard how fast Rendwick was going behind him and quickened his own pace. He reached the other side and dropped down onto the next rooftop. A few seconds later, Rendwick landed on the rooftop.

“I’m trying to figure out if that was easier than the rings course in the Training Center,” Rendwick said. He reached for his spear, making sure it didn’t fall off.

“I’m not sure which is easier either,” Lartius said, looking back at the wire. “This one is more straightforward, but it’s longer.”

“Yeah, it’s not like it’s two metal beams with dips and bumps.”

Lartius nodded then motioned Rendwick to follow him. They climbed up two more buildings before they made it to the tallest building. They climbed the side ladder onto the roof.

Rendwick looked around the arena. “Wow.” He took in all the buildings, the Cornucopia way over on Main Street, and the three parks scattered around the arena.

“Yeah,” Lartius said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

Lartius became aware that the sky had attained a distinct orange glow. He looked up. “The sun’s setting already?”

“At least it’s getting cooler out,” Rendwick said. He pulled his jacket out of his backpack and put it on.

Lartius hadn’t even noticed it had gotten cooler until Rendwick pointed it out. “This is what I mean, though.” He untied his own jacket from his backpack and put it back on. “I said before that I felt that time speeds up one moment and slows down the next in here. I feel like the day just went by too fast.”

“Yeah, we didn’t even do all that much today,” Rendwick said, not taking his eyes off the arena.

Lartius noticed Rendwick was lost in thought. “What is it?”

“Everything looks so different from up here,” he said. “I feel different up here.”

“Different how?”

“Safer. Untouchable. Like I’m not really a part of things down there anymore.”

For a while, the two of them just stood there, watching the sun slowly sink below the horizon. In the back of his mind, he knew it was artificial. It looked too perfect to be real. The orange and purple tint in the sky made the sunset look even nicer to Rendwick than it did back at home.

Rendwick remembered earlier that day, when his hand twitched as if it was reaching for Lartius. All the little moments they’d had that day were very short. He wanted one of them to last longer. Rendwick shifted his body a little he was closer to Lartius. He felt his knuckles touch the back of Lartius’ hand. But he didn’t immediately withdraw his hand. He left it there.

Lartius looked down at their hands then up at Rendwick. Rendwick felt that same magnetic pull from that morning as he held Lartius’ gaze. The coolness in the air made goosebumps erupt all over his arms. The atmosphere felt very different, what with the sunset and all.

It took a while but Lartius finally looked away. He cleared his throat. “Um, we should head back.”

Rendwick nodded. They were safer in the hideout, they had more privacy. They could talk without having to watch their words in front of the cameras. The tension between them was reaching the point where they had to talk about it.

The journey back to the hideout was made in silence. Rendwick was back inside his head thinking about what had just happened. He’d gotten his longer moment, but it still wasn’t enough for him. Maybe it was the way they were handling all those moments. They just brushed it off and didn’t talk about it. He wanted that to change.

Lartius had been stuck inside his head for most of the day, trying to make sense of all these little moments with Rendwick. Every time they so much as brushed each other accidentally, it sent his nerves singing, his entire body on high alert, and stirred something inside his ribs. It was a similar feeling he got when he found out he was the only person Rendwick ever came out to. A sort of… yearning.

Right then, it finally hit him. He should’ve guessed from their conversation that morning. Rendwick was attracted to him.

Was he attracted to Rendwick?

The answer to that was an immediate, resounding “yes”. It was why he was so nervous that morning when he woke up, why he kept playing those little moments in his head, why that feeling of yearning seemed to fill up slowly in his chest.

Of everything Lartius thought could happen in the arena, he really didn’t expect this. Even if they weren’t in the Games, he had no idea what the next step would be.

Night had fallen over most of the arena by the time they reached the hideout. Rendwick checked around to make sure the coast was clear, like he usually did, before they went inside. Rendwick pushed the panel back into the frame, and sat down against the wall. He unstrapped his spear from his backpack and propped it up against the wall next to him. Lartius slid his backpack off his shoulders and dropped it onto the floor, but didn’t sit down. He couldn’t. The gears in his head where whirring at top speed.

“What’s wrong?” Rendwick asked him. He knew what was coming. He could practically hear his own heart pounding in his chest.

Lartius chewed the inside of his cheek, trying to find the right words. He knew they couldn’t keep on having their little moments and pushing them aside every time. But he wasn’t sure how to put into words what was going on in his head. He was going to start pacing the room, but it was too dark inside. He reached for his backpack and blindly rummaged around inside it before he pulled out his flashlight. He turned it on and propped it up against his backpack.

“It’s just…” he began, “this day has been a little…” He leaned his head back.

“Weird?” Rendwick finished.

“Yeah, I guess, I mean not in a bad way. Just… in a brand new way for me.”

“Me, too.” Rendwick stood up.

“Why do you think all of this is happening?” Lartius asked.

Rendwick knew what he meant. He thought for a second. “I think it’s the fact that we knew each other already. I mean, I never expected to get along this well with anyone in the Games. Hell, I’ve never gotten along this well with anyone ever. Besides you.”

Lartius looked at him. There was a very different look in his eye. Throughout the day, Rendwick saw confusion in his eyes. Confusion mixed a little bit of uncertainty and hesitation. But now his eyes were sharp and bold. He seemed a little more confident. It finally seemed to sink in that for Rendwick this wasn’t the boy he built the sandcastle with on the shores of District 4 ten years ago. He was so much more now.

At that instant, Rendwick realized why he wanted more of those moments, why he wanted them to last longer, why he didn’t want them to be pushed aside like they didn’t mean anything. They meant a whole lot. They meant that Rendwick had feelings for Lartius.

Lartius could tell that Rendwick had come across some kind of epiphany, some kind of “aha!” moment. It wouldn’t be easy getting into his head and finding out what it was.

“You never told me that before,” Lartius said. “That you’ve never gotten along this well with anyone besides me.”

Rendwick shrugged. “I’ve never really told anyone. I did tell my parents about you, though. The day we met, when I got home from school.” Rendwick smiled a little. “I kind of couldn’t shut up about you all throughout dinner. I bet they knew without me even telling them.”

Lartius stared at the floor then looked back up at Rendwick. “I kind of misjudged you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know you said you’re good at keeping things bottled up, but you can be an open book.”

“Only when I want to. Only when I feel comfortable enough around someone to tell them. When I trust them.”

“Why do you trust me, though?” Lartius asked.

“Because I do,” Rendwick replied simply. He walked towards Lartius. “Because you’re the only person in this entire arena that I already knew beforehand. Because I didn’t want to team up with a complete stranger. Because I know that despite all the training to get here and how determined you were in your interview, you’re not an asshole. Because you probably hate Phox, Alto, Eunia, and Volumnia as much as I do.” Rendwick had stepped forward a little. Their faces were inches apart. “Because it’s you.”

Lartius could feel Rendwick’s body heat radiating off him. His heart was pounding again. That feeling of yearning was filling up in his chest to the point that he thought it would burst like a broken dam.

Rendwick just looked at Lartius, waiting for an answer or a reaction. Something that let him know he wasn’t crazy, that this was okay, that this was perfectly fine. They were standing as close to each other as they could without touching, but Rendwick wanted to do something. Take his arm, his hand, his shoulder. If he were feeling gutsy enough, he’d reach up to his face.

Lartius’ eyes had a challenging look. “Are you sure there aren’t any more cameras around here?”

Rendwick nodded. “Yeah.”

“Good,” Lartius replied. He reached up, put his hand on the back of Rendwick’s neck, and pulled him into a kiss.

There was a sharp intake of breath from Rendwick before his eyes closed. After a few seconds, he allowed himself just to sink into his kiss. He reached for one of Lartius’ wrists, which was on his shoulder. His lips parted, catching Lartius’ in between them. If their little moments caused his brain to freeze and his body to tense up, this was sending him into sensory overload. Despite how he felt towards Lartius, he never even stopped to envision this moment.

Lartius’ right hand slid down from Rendwick’s shoulder to his chest. He could feel his heart beating in a very quick tempo to match his own heartbeat. Every time they dove in deeper for more, their noses would brush together. The sensation made Lartius feel as though tiny volts of electricity were zooming up his spine.

Rendwick broke the kiss. “Wait, wait, wait,” he said breathlessly. “What are we doing?”

Lartius looked him square in the eye. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve been fighting this for a while now. I just got sick of that.”

“You were fighting this?” Rendwick repeated.

“Yeah, but you won,” Lartius said, grinning a little. “I tend to live inside my head a lot of the time, and it’s fine for the most part. But it’s just nice to know I have someone else on my side.”

Rendwick smiled back at him. Lartius’ left hand was still on the back of Rendwick’s neck, his right still on his chest. Rendwick dipped his head and kissed him again. Their kisses became a little more aggressive. Rendwick’s free hand moved to wrap around Lartius’ waist, near the center of his back, and pulled him in a little closer. They broke apart again when they heard music playing outside the hideout. The anthem.

The two of them carefully opened the panel and went onto the fire escape. They watched the Capitol seal vanish and two faces were flashed in the sky: Nitya’s and the girl from District 5. The number of fallen tributes was diminishing every day. The anthem finished and the Capitol seal vanished. Eight people were left, and most of them were high-district tributes.

“Can you imagine if there was another camera around, though?” Lartius said once they were back inside the hideout. “And everyone just saw what happened in here? All of Panem would be freaking out.” He laughed a little.

“Yeah, they probably would.” Rendwick grinned to himself.

“I like freaking people out, though. But I guess doing that here wouldn’t be as fun because I wouldn’t see their reactions.”

They exchanged small smiles. Rendwick leaned in and kissed him again, his hand reaching up to the spot below Lartius’ ear. Lartius’ hand went up to the crook of Rendwick’s elbow. The sensations Lartius was getting now were warmer and more pleasant. He could get used to that. He didn’t have a clue how this was supposed to work, but he decided he didn’t care. Rendwick was about as clueless as he was. They’d figure it out together. They broke apart, their foreheads still touching.

“It’s late,” Rendwick said. “We should get some sleep.”

Lartius nodded. Rendwick’s hand slid off him as he picked up his blanket still folded by the wall, like he’d left it that morning. He dragged his backpack over so he could use it as a pillow and lay down on the floor. Lartius put his own backpack closer to Rendwick’s and unrolled his own blanket. He lay down next to him. Rendwick turned to look at him.

“What?” Rendwick asked.

“Come here,” Lartius said, motioning him to scooch in closer. He reached up next to his backpack and turned off his flashlight.

Despite it being pitch black in the room, Rendwick’s hand went right back up to Lartius’ face as he kissed him again. His other hand reached for Lartius’ and laced together with his. His hand slid down his cheek a little so his thumb could brush Lartius’ jaw. Their foreheads rested against each other.

“Really, really weird time to fall for someone,” Rendwick said, the tip of his nose brushing Lartius’.

“I’ll say,” Lartius agreed.

DISTRICT 1 Phox Baxwoll Volumnia Roxen
DISTRICT 2 Lartius Rankine Eunia Allardyce
DISTRICT 3 Alto Whishart Fannia Lapworth
DISTRICT 4 Rendwick Combe Nitya Flamsteed
DISTRICT 5 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 6 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 7 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 8 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 9 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 10 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 11 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 12 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE

The Trick

Disclaimer: The parachute idea is not mine at all. Credit goes to weasleysweaters for her sheer genius.

The air was much fresher the following morning. It reminded Lartius of spring. He tucked Rendwick’s canteen next to his own in his backpack. He cast a glance back at Rendwick, who was still sleeping on the floor, then stepped out onto the fire escape and pulled the panel shut. If he worked quickly, he’d be back before Rendwick woke up. He didn’t want Rendwick to think he bailed on him.

He hadn’t even reached the end of the block before he saw people in the park on 23rd Street. He didn’t need to get closer to find out who they were. Aside from him and Rendwick, there was only one other group of allies in the arena. He immediately took a left and went for the west side park. He wanted to check on it anyway, to see if the water was back up and if grass was still dry from yesterday.

The sun was starting to peek over the horizon. Lartius did his best to keep his time outside the hideout short. He wished it didn’t take so long to get from Avenue F to 16th Avenue. Even more so, he wished Phox, Alto, Eunia, and Volumnia had set up camp somewhere else.

When he finally reached 16th Avenue, he was glad to see that the grass was back to normal. The water fountain was working just fine, too. He quickly refilled both his and Rendwick’s canteens, then scanned the tree branches for birds. He managed to kill a couple of them, pluck them, and clean them out. He knew it would be risky to cook them in the park without someone keeping watch, but he didn’t really have a choice. Rendwick was still asleep back at the hideout; he couldn’t cook inside the hideout because of all the smoke. He broke off several branches from the nearest tree. He just had to be quick and very, very careful.

He lit the fire and hovered the birds, skewered on branches, over the fire with one hand. His other than held a knife. He looked around the streets, up at the rooftops, and back down at the birds. He kept turning them over so they would cook evenly on both sides. He felt very nervous and paranoid, trying to do two things at once. He knew Rendwick wasn’t sleeping well since the Games started. He hoped and willed that Rendwick was still sleeping by the time he got back.

Finally, the birds were done. Lartius quickly stamped out the fire and stuck the birds inside his backpack. He climbed up the fire escape and quickly walked back to Avenue F. The sun’s position actually hadn’t changed too much since he left the hideout. It hadn’t fully risen over the horizon yet, so maybe Rendwick was still asleep. When he reached the hideout, he looked around, making sure he wasn’t being watched. He carefully stepped onto the fire escape, trying not to be too loud, and went back inside the hideout. When he pushed the panel back into the frame, Rendwick looked up at him, over to the empty spot on the floor next to him, then back up at Lartius. Lartius heard movement behind him and turned around.

"Did I wake you?" Lartius asked.

"No," Rendwick replied, shaking his head. "I haven’t been sleeping all that well since the Reaping."

"I don’t think anyone has," Lartius said.

Rendwick sat up. He noticed Lartius was taking off his backpack. “Did you go somewhere?”

"Yeah, I went to get food," Lartius replied. He sat down next to Rendwick.

"Alone?" Rendwick asked incredulously.

"Hey, I’m alive, aren’t I?" Lartius was smiling a little. His hand went up to Rendwick’s shoulder, then slowly up to the back of Rendwick’s neck. His thumb brushed back and forth in Rendwick’s hair and he pulled him into a kiss. Rendwick’s hand moved up to the crook of Lartius’ elbow. Lartius smiled a little at the warm, pleasant sensation in his chest. He pulled back so he could look at Rendwick.

"Did you notice I was gone?" he asked.

"No," Rendwick replied.

Lartius nodded. “Good. I didn’t want you to think I ran out on you, especially given what happened last night.”

Rendwick smiled. “Where’d you go to get food?”

"Phox, Alto, Eunia, and Volumnia were at the park a few blocks uptown so I went back to the park on the west side," Lartius said, opening his backpack. "The grass looks normal again and the water’s back up. I guess yesterday’s drought was just something the Gamemakers did to freak us out." He passed Rendwick his now full canteen.

"Thanks," Rendwick said, taking his canteen.

"You’re in a good mood for someone who’s not a morning person," Lartius noted.

Rendwick just smiled again. He tugged Lartius forward by his jacket and kissed him again. His hand moved up to the space underneath Lartius’ ear. Lartius had one hand on Rendwick’s shoulder to steady himself. He smiled against Rendwick’s mouth.

"Are you hungry?" Lartius asked, pulling back.

"What did you get?"

Lartius pulled the two birds out of his backpack, still skewered on their sticks, and handed one of them to Rendwick.

"It’s really nice out today," Lartius said.

"Yeah?"

"Mm-hm. It’s like spring."

Rendwick moved in a little closer to Lartius. “Do you think there’ll be another drought at some point?”

Lartius shrugged. “I don’t know what goes on in the Gamemaker’s heads.” He took a bite of his bird.

"Yeah. How do you think they make all of this?" Rendwick asked him.

Lartius thought back to all the past arenas, all the leafy trees, the ponds, the lakes, the bushes, the stone, the sand, the mutts, and the concrete. “I don’t know. I bet it gets hard after so many years, because they have to make each Games more interesting than the last. I don’t think they’ve ever used the same arena twice.”

Rendwick took a bite of his own bird. “Yeah. If they kept using the same arenas over and over, people would get bored and they wouldn’t want to watch anymore.”

"Can you imagine if people stopped watching?" Lartius said. "Even the people in the Capitol? None of the sponsors would send anything."

"And the Capitol citizens are the biggest spectators. The other districts only watch for the kids from their district. And the parents sometimes feel like they can’t watch because they’re terrified of watching their kids die on TV. They just feel so powerless, they want to protect them, but they’re separated by a screen."

Lartius wondered if that was how his parents felt. Maybe his mom felt that way. His dad wanted to watch him succeed, as did his brother. He could practically see Jax sitting directly in front of the television set, scanning the roads and rooftops for a glance of his big brother. He dropped one of his empty bones onto the floor next to him.

"But if no one watches, they don’t have a Game," Rendwick said.

Lartius never thought he would talk about the Games like this while he was in the Games, let alone at all. Lartius bet that if his friends from school were in his situation, they would think the same way about the Games.

Actually that wasn’t true, he realized. His friends were all straight. They all had different personalities, but a similar drive. Their attitudes would be more like Phox and Alto. They’d be in the thick of the action, looking for tributes to kill everyday, not holed up in a secret room with Rendwick. If any of them had been picked or volunteered in his place at the Reaping, they wouldn’t have made any kind of connection with Rendwick.

Rendwick dropped the last bone on the floor and wiped his hands off. He moved so he sat next to Lartius with his back against the wall, propping his arm on his knee.

Lartius took a sip from his canteen. “Did you ever think that you’d have a better understanding of the Games if you were a part of it, but now that you are, you still don’t have a clear picture?”

"I think that’s kind of the point, though," Rendwick said. "No one knows how the Games are made or organized. It’s all shrouded in mystery. They want to keep people like us and prospective tributes out of the loop."

"Yeah, I guess." Lartius dropped his last bone down in his pile. "If they gave us details on how everything worked, we’d have it too easy out here. We’d know how to get around anything the Gamemakers threw at us."

"The last thing the Gamemakers want to do is make this easy," Rendwick said. "If it’s too easy, everyone gets bored."

Rendwick shifted in his seat a little, turning more towards Lartius. His arm reached up to wrap around Lartius’ shoulder. Lartius shifted in his seat, and leaned his back against Rendwick’s chest. Rendwick hooked his chin on Lartius’ shoulder.

"I’m really not in the mood to go out right now," Lartius said.

"Me neither."

Rendwick’s hand was by Lartius’ arm, his thumb brushing back and forth in the crook of Lartius’ elbow. Sometimes when Rendwick moved his head, the tip of his nose would brush the top of Lartius’ ear, which gave him that warm, pleasant sensation in his chest again.

"Do you think if your parents saw this that they’d be happy for you?" Lartius asked.

Rendwick tilted his head to the side a little. His hand trailed down Lartius’ arm and reached his wrist. “Yeah.” Rendwick’s hand traveled down further and their fingers entwined. “Maybe.”

Lartius smiled a little. He looked down at their hands and noticed something protruding from the sleeve of Rendwick’s jacket. He pushed the sleeve back and saw an intricately knotted bracelet tied around his wrist. “What’s this?”

Lartius could feel Rendwick smile near his ear. “It’s my district token. My mom made it from fishnets and dried seaweed. I’ve been wearing it since I was 12.”

Lartius let the sleeve fall back over Rendwick’s wrist.

"What’s your token?" Rendwick asked.

"Don’t have one," Lartius replied. "Didn’t think of one. My brother has one, though. An old coin. He found it the dirt at his school playground."

"He already has a token?" Rendwick asked. "How old is he again? Seven?"

"Mhm." Lartius nodded. "I used to be like him. I always looked forward to the Games. I acted like one of the Capitol spectators. Me and my friends would reenact them."

"You used to?" Rendwick repeated.

"Yeah." He turned his head to look at Rendwick. "Not anymore. And I bet you can guess why."

Rendwick smiled a little. “Did I really get through to you that quickly?”

"Well, you had all the evidence you needed in here."

Lartius leaned in and kissed him. His hand went up to Rendwick’s shoulder. Rendwick’s other arm wrapped around Lartius, pulling him in a little closer. He felt Lartius’ hand move up from his shoulder to just beneath his ear.

Rendwick pulled back and rested his forehead on Lartius’. Rendwick never thought he could feel this happy, especially not in the Games. It made him feel human. That was one thing he was still trying to hold onto. He didn’t want to turn into a monster.

Rendwick noticed his priorities had shifted at this point. At the start of the Games, he was planning on just surviving the Games. But now, his priority was Lartius. He had to keep Lartius alive.

Lartius looked at Rendwick. “We should go out at some point.”

Rendwick’s mouth thinned. He didn’t say anything.

"You know we can’t stay cooped up in here the whole time," Lartius said. "We won’t survive that way."

Rendwick nodded reluctantly. “I just figured this was a much better way to spend my time.”

Lartius turned a little in his seat. “I’m not saying we should go hunting for tributes.” Rendwick’s other arm wrapped around Lartius’ neck to join the other hand. Lartius’ hand went up to Rendwick’s elbow. “I know you don’t like that. I’m just thinking we could go out and walk, refill our canteens, something.”

"You don’t like being cooped up in here," Rendwick said.

"I’d like it a whole lot less if I were alone, that’s for sure," Lartius said. Rendwick smiled. "Sometimes, I just need to get up and walk around, and I need my open space."

Rendwick reached up to Lartius’ hair. “I understand.” He leaned his forehead against Lartius’ again. “When do you wanna go?”

Lartius smiled. “Not now. In a little bit.”

Rendwick laughed a little and kissed him again. Lartius’ hand trailed up and down Rendwick’s arm.

"Has your dad let you do things in his workshop yet?" Rendwick asked.

Lartius laughed. “I can’t believe you remembered that.”

"Of course I did." Rendwick kissed Lartius’ temple, his nose brushing Lartius’ forehead. "Well? Has he?"

"No," Lartius answered. "He said he wanted to wait until I was eighteen, so I have a few months left to go."

Rendwick nodded.

"What about you?" Lartius asked. "Did you ever learn how to catch shellfish?"

"Yeah, when I was thirteen. I caught this huge lobster. Normally, we’re not allowed to keep anything we catch. It has to go right to the markets. But since it was the first time I’d caught shellfish, my mom helped me sneak it home."

Lartius smiled.

"It tasted incredible, too," Rendwick added.

Lartius laughed. He rested his forehead on Rendwick’s again, then leaned in more and kissed him. His hand went back up under Rendwick’s ear, then into his hair. Lartius felt Rendwick’s grip on him tighten a little. They pulled apart again, and just sat there, looking at each other.

"All right," Lartius said after a while. "We should get going."

Rendwick nodded and kissed him one more time. Lartius reached over for his backpack and jacket as he stood up. He extended a hand and helped Rendwick to his feet. Rendwick put on his own backpack and took his spear. Lartius put on his jacket, swung his backpack over his shoulders, and headed for the window.

"Wait, wait," Rendwick said suddenly.

Lartius turned around. “What?”

"Can we just establish something right now?" Rendwick asked.

"Establish what?" Lartius let go of the panel.

"A rule, about all this." He gestured between the two of them. "That whatever happens in the hideout stays in the hideout," Rendwick said.

Lartius nodded. “Yeah. Okay.”

Rendwick’s entire body seemed to relax. “Thanks.”

"Of course," Lartius said. "You say that like you were afraid I’d say no."

"I just wanted to make sure," Rendwick said.

"Well, it’s not really my place to push you into things," Lartius said, reaching for Rendwick’s hand. "If you don’t want people to know yet, then who am I to say no to that?"

Lartius leaned up kissed him once. Rendwick held onto him and kissed him back, longer. Lartius smiled as he gripped Rendwick by his shoulders.

"Okay," Lartius said after they broke apart. "Let’s go."

Lartius pulled the panel open and they both stepped out onto the fire escape. Lartius pulled the panel shut and they walked up to the roof.

Rendwick glanced up at the sky. “You’re right. It is really nice out here.”

Lartius smiled and glanced up, too. He noticed the sky was a little overcast. “It wasn’t this cloudy when I was out earlier this morning.” The clouds stretched all over the arena, the ones back towards the tallest building looked particularly ominous.

"What, you think it’s gonna rain?" Rendwick asked.

"I hope it doesn’t."

"Where do you wanna go?"

Lartius looked around. “Let’s head uptown. The park’s probably empty by now.”

Rendwick nodded. They made their way up to 23rd Street, slowing down a little when they got closer to the trees. They looked around the park, peering through the leaves and branches to make sure the coast was clear before they went down the fire escape.

"We can’t keep hiding from them, you know," Lartius said, when Rendwick jumped down to the pavement.

"Yeah, I know," Rendwick replied. He knew who Lartius meant by "them".

"Wish there was a way to diminish the pack," Lartius said, as they crossed the street into the park. "So we wouldn’t have to worry about fighting all four of them at once."

"There probably is, we just need to think of it and put it into motion," Rendwick said. They walked down the line of trees to the stone fountain.

"Have you ever checked out the rest of the park?" Rendwick asked. He looked to the left of the fountain.

Lartius shook his head. “Never really had the time.”

There wasn’t really much to see of the rest of the park at first. It was just a lot of open space more trees and bushes, and a couple of boulders here than there. The more they wandered around, the more they saw. There were bronze statues and wooden benches placed around the park. Lartius also noticed that some of the trees had low branches, easy access for climbing.

"Do you think this arena was based on a real place?" Lartius asked Rendwick. "Like a real city where people used to live?"

Rendwick raised his eyebrows, pondering this. “Maybe. They have to get their inspiration for these arenas from somewhere. Maybe there was a city like this back when Panem was called North America.”

"I never really learned anything about North America in school," Lartius said. "Just that it was devastated by natural disasters and war."

"Yeah, same here." Rendwick sat down on one of the boulders. "What do you think this place was like, if it existed in real life?"

Lartius reached up to a leaf dangling from one of the trees. “Busy. This place is just rows and rows of buildings. And cramped. There are no houses in here, so everyone must’ve had a floor or a section of it to live in.”

They just spent their time wandering around the park. It was one of the rare moments where they didn’t feel rushed out in the open arena. Several times, Rendwick had to fight the impulse to reach for Lartius’ hand. His head wanted to keep his relationship with Lartius a secret, but his heart didn’t seem to care.

They walked into the trees, seeing the layer of woodchips on the ground instead of grass. They looked up and saw blankets stretched between the branches, tied to each other, shielding them from the sun, forming a makeshift tent.

"I bet this is where they stayed during the drought," Rendwick said, half to himself and half to Lartius.

Lartius looked up at all the blankets. “Yeah. Maybe.”

"This looks pretty cool, though," Rendwick said. "It looks like a fort I made with my friends when I was nine."

"Yeah?" Lartius grinned. "What’d you use it for? Secret clubhouse?"

"Sometimes. One day it was a pirate ship, another day it was a castle."

"Wish we’d done that ten years ago," Lartius said. "Sounds like fun."

Rendwick laughed a little. They kept wandering around, although Lartius didn’t think there was much else to see underneath the blanket tent.

"Lartius?" Rendwick said suddenly.

"Yeah?" Lartius replied.

"You said Phox and everyone were here this morning?" Rendwick asked.

"Yeah, why?" Lartius turned around.

"I think they left this behind." Rendwick pointed underneath one of the trees.

Lartius walked up to the tree and saw what seemed to be a pile of clothes. Rendwick tentatively poked the pile with the blade of his spear.

Lartius laughed. “What are you doing? It’s a pile of clothes, not a bomb.”

"I just want to make sure," Rendwick said. "You know who we’re dealing with here."

"Yeah, but they’re not smart enough to make a pile of clothes dangerous. Relax."

Rendwick started to laugh, too. “We find a pile of clothes, I apparently see a bomb, and you just see free clothes.”

Still laughing, Lartius crouched down and picked up the shirt on top of the pile. “It’s all guys’ stuff.” He went through the rest of the pile and found two more shirts and two pairs of pants. He handed a pair of pants and shirt to Rendwick. “Finders keepers.”

Rendwick laughed again, tucking the clothes in his backpack.

"I don’t really think there’s much else here," Lartius said, putting away the clothes he’d gotten from the pile.

"You wanna head back?" Rendwick asked.

Lartius nodded.

They passed back through the trees and found themselves by the fountain again. Although he dimly registered that the sky looked more overcast than before, Lartius’ mind was still on Phox and his troupe. He knew they were all dangerous as a group, but Lartius felt Phox was the most dangerous when singled out from the rest of them. Even if the managed to evade being diminished from the pack, he was going to be tough to deal with when the time came.

One of the bushes by the trees caught his eye and Lartius stopped. He crouched down in front of the bush. Rendwick noticed Lartius wasn’t following him anymore and turned around. Lartius plucked one of the berries from the bush and looked at it.

"Whoa, whoa, what are you doing?" Rendwick asked, taking his arm. "That’s nightlock."

"I know," Lartius replied. Rendwick let go of his arm. "I was thinking I’d slip this into their food and see if they fall for it. They spent most of their time in the Training Center playing around with the weapons."

Rendwick thought about this. “But wait, they’ve been through the parks before. They’ve probably already seen the nightlock and recognized it. That’s why they haven’t touched it.”

"Yeah, you’re probably right," Lartius said, nodding. He pressed his lips together, still staring at the grass for a while before he looked up. "Do you still have the parachute the bread came in?"

Rendwick raised his eyebrows. “Good thinking. They’ll trust anything that comes from the Capitol.”

"Or looks like it anyway."

Rendwick swung his backpack off one shoulder and around to his chest. He unzipped it, fished around inside, and took out the tin container. “The parachute’s back at the hideout.”

Lartius took the container, opened it, and saw what resembled a paper napkin inside it. He dumped a handful of berries onto it, making sure it didn’t touch the metal interior, in case they used the container for something else.

"I think we should test it," Lartius said.

"On who?" Rendwick asked.

"Someone else. Just to make sure it works. Who’s left?"

Rendwick tipped his head back a little. “Um… besides us and Phox and his troupe, the guy from Five and the girl from Twelve.”

"We’d have to find one of them to test this out." Lartius screwed the lid back on the container and put it in his backpack.

"You wanna do this now?" Rendwick asked.

Lartius shook his head. “No, not now. I was thinking about heading out just as the sun started to set and hopefully finding someone before the anthem, when the sun is down. That way they won’t see us throw the parachute down, and it’ll be too dark for them to recognize that it’s nightlock.”

"That’s brilliant," Rendwick said, impressed.

Lartius pulled his canteen out, shook it a little, and headed to the water fountain, shrugging. As he was refilling, Rendwick felt something small fall on his arm. He looked down at his arm, up at the overcast sky, and felt something wet drop on his face.

"Damn it," Rendwick said.

"What?" Lartius asked, putting his canteen away.

"It’s starting to rain," Rendwick said. "Can’t you feel it?"

Lartius looked down at the water pooled in the basin of the fountain. The surface looked undisturbed. He held out his palm, but the rain caught him on his wrist. “Yeah, we need to head back.”

It wasn’t raining too hard as they started walking back, but the rain did get heavier by the time they reached 19th Street. Lartius could feel the rain soaking through his shirt and pants. After the drought yesterday, the cold drops permeating through his clothes felt pleasantly cool. He let himself enjoy it.

The rain had gotten even heavier by the time they made it back to the hideout. Lartius’ shirt was entirely soaked now, even the parts of his shirt covered by his jacket. As Rendwick quickly looked around to make sure they weren’t being followed, Lartius tipped his head back to get a face full of the rain. Rendwick looked at him, laughed a little, and dragged him inside.

"Hopefully the rain stops tonight so we can test the parachute idea." Lartius swung his backpack off his shoulder.

"I forgot they could make it rain in here," Rendwick said, pushing the panel back into the window frame. He set his spear aside and took off his backpack.

"It was refreshing though, especially after the drought yesterday," Lartius said, shaking off his jacket.

Rendwick shed his own jacket, felt his wet shirt between his fingers, and pulled it over his head. “Are you soaked?” he asked Lartius.

Lartius’ stomach jumped at the sight of Rendwick’s bare chest. He smiled a little. “Yup.” Lartius peeled off his own shirt and wrung it out. A sizable stream of water dripped onto the floor. “Jeez. It’s like a sponge.”

Smiling, Rendwick moved in a little closer and draped his wet shirt over his shoulder. He ran his hands through the top of Lartius’ wet hair, flicking droplets of water off the ends, his eyes locked on Lartius’. Rendwick’s lips were hovering inches over Lartius’. Unable to stand it, Lartius pulled him down and kissed him hungrily.

Both of their shirts wound up on the floor. Lartius’ hand went to the back of Rendwick’s head, pulling him in deeper. Then their hands began to wander, up and down each other’s backs, arms and chests, cupping each other’s cheeks, and sliding into each other’s hair. The water made their hands glide smoothly over each other’s bodies.

Still attached to Lartius’ mouth, Rendwick sat down against the wall, dragging Lartius down with him. They kept kissing, deeper and deeper, faster and faster, Lartius sitting in between Rendwick’s legs. Lartius liked their small, intimate moments, but he always felt like he wanted more.

Rendwick let himself get lost in the moment. He felt his spine buck up whenever Lartius’ fingertips pressed into his skin. The body heat passing back and forth between them made their minds foggy. The room was filled with their heavy breathing and the sound of rain pounding on the panel in the window. Rendwick sat up a little so he wasn’t leaning against the wall. Lartius’ hand moved down his back, his fingertips gently traced down Rendwick’s spine, eliciting a sharp intake of breath from him. Rendwick gently bit down on Lartius’ lower lip, dragging it with his teeth. A soft moan escaped Lartius’ lips.

Lartius’ head and heart were going a million miles a minute. He didn’t feel the need to come up for air. The water was drying on their skin, so Lartius reached up into Rendwick’s still wet hair. Rendwick’s hand slid down to the small of Lartius’ back. Lartius smiled a little against Rendwick’s mouth. His lips moved from Rendwick’s mouth to his jaw, down his neck, to his collarbone. Rendwick let out a moan of his own, tipped his head back, and kept his eyes shut. His hand moved to the back of Lartius’ head.

Lartius kissed down to the middle of his chest before he made his way back up. He lingered on Rendwick’s collarbone, smiling a little at the noises Rendwick was making. He moved back up his neck and to his jaw before Rendwick pulled him back to his mouth. Rendwick’s other hand went back and forth between Lartius’ waist and the small of his back. Lartius’ hand slid from his neck down to his chest. He could feel Rendwick’s heart thumping. Lartius’ hand to continued to slide down until it reached Rendwick’s thigh, moving closer and closer to his hips, but Rendwick stopped the wandering hand and pulled back, breaking the kiss.

"What?" Lartius asked, looking at him.

"I just, uh," Rendwick cleared his throat. "I feel like we need to… slow down a little."

"Okay," Lartius said, nodding.

"Sorry," Rendwick said, looking down.

"Hey, come on." Lartius cupped Rendwick’s face with his hands. "We talked about this earlier. Don’t be sorry. You’re allowed to go at your own pace."

Rendwick smiled, and felt his face turn a little pink. He felt incredibly lucky that Lartius understood and respected his process. Lartius kissed him one last time before he reached over and picked their shirts up off the floor. “This… is yours,” he said, handing Rendwick his shirt. He tossed his own damp shirt aside and took out one of the dry ones he’d found at the park.

Rendwick put on his own dry shirt on. He pulled Lartius in a little and kissed him, very slowly, very gently. Rendwick leaned back against the wall, draping his arms around Lartius’ neck, pulling him into his chest, like they’d been that morning. Lartius rested his forehead on Rendwick’s temple. He always liked rain. It made the atmosphere serene, even inside a building. He felt like they were inside a bubble, safe, isolated from the rest of the arena.

"I know you keep saying I don’t need to apologize about taking it slow," Rendwick said, his hand fiddling with the collar on Lartius’ shirt. "But I feel like I need to."

"Why, though?" Lartius asked.

"Because this is all new to me. I don’t know how it’s supposed to work, so I’m just treading lightly until I get used to it."

"So?" Lartius said, smiling a little. "It’s new for me, too. I don’t know how this is supposed to work either." He shrugged. "We’ll figure it out together. Who cares? It’s not like anyone’s watching us anyway."

Almost instantly, Lartius felt a sharp sting in his forearm. He grimaced as his hand instinctively reached for the spot below his elbow.

"What is it?" Rendwick asked, sitting up instantly.

"It’s just my arm," Lartius said. He took his hand off looked at it. There were no cuts or marks or anything indicating pain. Then Lartius saw a faint light pulse underneath his skin.

"No," Lartius said, a tone of awe in his voice. "It’s my tracker."

Rendwick looked down at Lartius’ arm. “It’s hurting?”

"Stinging." The light underneath his skin was a dull orange, not the white-blue he saw when the Capitol attendant had injected it into his arm. "Do you think it could be because of the rain?"

"I doubt it." Rendwick’s mind zoomed into overdrive, trying to figure out what this meant. Since they were dealing with the Capitol, it couldn’t mean anything good. His heart seemed to drop when he wondered if the injection was safe. Was the tracker giving Lartius an infection? The Capitol attendants were all dressed in white and had a sterile look about them. No one had ever died from getting their tracker injected into their arm. But, then again, Rendwick didn’t even know that tributes were injected with trackers until he got into the hovercraft the morning the Games started.

"Is yours orange, too?" Lartius asked.

Rendwick looked at his own tracker. No light was pulsing through his skin. “No.”

"Maybe it’s dying out," Lartius suggested. He didn’t know what kind of power the trackers ran on.

If the tracker was giving him an infection, Lartius was going to need medicine. Rendwick was about to go for his backpack and see what his first aid kit had that could help when he felt a sharp sting in his arm. “Agh.” He looked down at it and saw the same orange light Lartius’ tracker had. “Okay, now mine is orange.”

"What does it mean?" Lartius asked.

For some reason, now that they both felt the stinging from their trackers, Rendwick’s theory that the tracker was giving Lartius an infection died off. It wouldn’t make sense to kill both of them by an infection, especially since they were hiding from the cameras for most of the Games. It seemed like a very boring way to die. The viewers wouldn’t like it.

Rendwick looked back down at his tracker. There had to be a reason why the light was now pulsing orange. He wondered if Lartius was right, and their trackers were dying out. If their trackers died, the Gamemakers would have no idea where they were in the arena.

Or-

"They’re trying to find us," he said suddenly.

Lartius looked at him. “What?”

"The Gamemakers have cameras everywhere in the arena, except in here," Rendwick said, turning a little in his spot on the floor. "The trackers are telling them where we are, but they can’t see us. I think they’re trying to rework the trackers to figure out how that’s possible. That’s what’s causing the stinging."

"You think so?" Lartius asked.

Rendwick shrugged. “It’s a theory.”

"You don’t think it means anything dangerous?"

Rendwick shook his head. “Why would they kill us through our trackers if they couldn’t see us? It’s not a very exciting or dramatic way to die. And they want to show all the deaths on TV.”

Lartius nodded. “Good point.”

They both relaxed a little. Rendwick’s arms went back around Lartius’ shoulders.

"No one in the Games has ever died from an infection from the tracker?" Lartius asked.

"I don’t think so," Rendwick replied. "That was actually my first thought when you said yours was stinging, and I was kind of, you know, inwardly panicking. Because if you did have an infection, I wouldn’t know what to do or if I had anything that could help."

"If I did, though," Lartius said, "if they did give me an infection through this thing, they’d do something about it. Have a feast by the Cornucopia. Get everyone over there to fight it out for what they need."

Rendwick nodded, his heart dropping again. He’d forgotten about the feast. He’d seen several of them in past Hunger Games. The Gamemakers were probably imagining the showdown between a pair of tributes afflicted with an infection and a pair of tributes who weren’t.

"We should be careful," Rendwick said. "You know, just in case. The second something feels off for either of us, we have to take it easy. We can’t overexert ourselves."

"Off?" Lartius asked. "Like how?"

"Like a fever or something. Or if the stinging gets worse."

Lartius nodded. “And then what?”

Rendwick let out a puff of air. “Then we’ll figure it out. I didn’t check what was inside the first aid kit I got, but I bet there’ll be something there that could help.” One of his hand moved up to the back of Lartius’ head, fiddling with his still damp hair. “You know, just in case,” he repeated.

Lartius nodded again. His hand moved up to Rendwick’s shoulder, then trailed lightly up and down his arm. He smiled a little at the way Rendwick was looking at him. He liked that Rendwick was looking out for him like this. It felt comforting, just in an oddly different way. He didn’t really know how to describe it.

Rendwick leaned his forehead on Lartius’, his eyes shut. The hand on the back of Lartius’ head traveled around until it reached Lartius’ chin, tipping his face upward a little bit. Rendwick kissed him gently, catching Lartius’ top lip in between his. Lartius’ hand reached back up to Rendwick’s shoulder as he kissed him back a little deeper. He could feel Rendwick smiling against his mouth. Lartius propped his arm up, his hand reaching into Rendwick’s hair again. Rendwick broke the kiss and rested his forehead on Lartius’ again, his arm wrapping around his shoulder again.

It took a while, but Lartius slowly noticed the light permeating through the panel and filling up the room. The rain had stopped. Lartius got up, opened the panel, and poked his head outside. The sun was about to set.

"It’s almost sunset," he said, pushing the panel back into place.

"You’re gonna test out the parachute idea?" Rendwick asked.

Lartius nodded. He went to his backpack and took out the metal container full of nightlock. Rendwick reached over by the wall and retrieved the parachute. He handed it to Lartius, who fit the container back in the metal case, shut it, and clipped the parachute to the top.

Lartius looked over at Rendwick, who was still sitting comfortably against the wall. He looked like he had no intention of getting up. Lartius suddenly realized that Rendwick had asked if he was going to test out the parachute idea, not if they were going to do it together. He’d said “you”, not “we”.

"Are you okay with this?" Lartius asked, holding up the parachute.

Rendwick let out a breath and leaned the back of his head against the wall. “I don’t know, honestly. I mean, it’s pretty clever, I’ll give you that. And it’s less barbaric than stabbing or shooting someone. But… it’s still killing a person. So I’m a little conflicted, you know?”

Lartius nodded. He put his jacket back on. “You don’t have to come. I can do this by myself.”

"No," Rendwick said, shaking his head. "It’s okay. I’m coming with you. You need someone to cover you while you’re testing it out."

"Are you sure?" Lartius asked. He stood up and swung his backpack over his shoulders.

Rendwick nodded. “Don’t want anyone sneaking up on you.”

Lartius smiled a little and pulled him to his feet.

"So what exactly is the plan?" Rendwick asked, putting on his jacket.

"We go looking for a tribute, whether they’re on the move or they’re stationary. We shadow them until night falls and they settle down for the night. Once they’re comfortable, we find some higher ground and I’ll throw the parachute down."

"What if they settle down on a rooftop and none of the buildings around them are taller?" Rendwick asked.

"Then we don’t test it tonight. It’ll be too dark to go looking for another tribute by then. We’ll try again tomorrow."

Rendwick put his backpack on and picked up his spear. Lartius wrapped the parachute around the metal case and stuck it in his backpack. He opened the panel again, looked around, and stepped onto the fire escape, Rendwick following behind him and pulling the panel shut. The orange hue in the sky reminded Rendwick of the sunset from yesterday, at the top of the tallest building. He smiled to himself.

They headed uptown, walking on the rooftops. Lartius was scanning the ground below them. Rendwick glanced at the sunset again, and reached for his night vision shades in the side pocket of his backpack, thinking he would give them to Lartius when it got darker. He knew Lartius didn’t want to use a flashlight, since it would give them away in the dark. When they passed the park on 21st Street, Rendwick could tell that Lartius was scanning the park. He turned left, walking past Avenue F and G.

"So I guess we’re hitting the parks first?" Rendwick asked.

Lartius nodded. “It has water and it’s predictable. It’s the first place they might go.”

They didn’t really talk much the rest of the walk. Lartius was feeling a little antsy. His heart was pounding a little. He really wanted to try out his parachute theory. The more he thought about it, the more he wanted to see if it would work. And he really did want to try it out that night, as opposed to waiting until the next day. He wanted to eliminate the pack of high-district tributes as quickly as he could. The fact that they were in the same arena as him and Rendwick made him nervous. He had no idea where they were, and he always seemed to run into them every day (although they never saw him). If the pack was diminished (or even gone), Lartius would be able to relax.

It gradually became darker and harder to see by the time they reached 9th Avenue. When they got to the park on 38th Street, Rendwick was ready to hand the night vision shades to Lartius. He unzipped the side pocket of his backpack when Lartius suddenly stopped.

"What?" Rendwick asked him.

"I think I see someone," Lartius said, pointing down to his right.

Rendwick squinted down, but finally saw a moving shape wedged in between two tall pine trees on the right side of the park. He reached into his backpack, and pulled out his binoculars. He pressed them to his eyes and focused in on the shape. He was able to make out the face with the sun almost completely set. His back was turned to the nearest building.

"It’s the guy from Five," he said, passing the binoculars to Lartius. Lartius looked through them himself, nodded, and handed them back to Rendwick, who tucked them back into his backpack.

The building nearest to him was in front of the larger of the two pine trees. Lartius mentally documented the right building so they wouldn’t have to keep looking down and risk getting caught. He glanced up at the still darkening sky, hiking his backpack higher onto his shoulder. “All right, let’s do this.”

The two of them walked on the far side of each building, so the guy from Five wouldn’t be able to even see their silhouettes from the park. They walked a little further back between 9th and 8th Avenue before turning and walking up four more buildings.

"Okay," Lartius said in a low voice when they got to the right building. He looked back up at the sky. "It’s not dark enough yet. We need to wait a little."

Rendwick nodded. “How long do you think?”

"Not too long. Maybe five, ten minutes."

Lartius sat down on the far side of the building. Rendwick sat down opposite him and put his spear down.

Rendwick studied Lartius’ face. “You really want this to work, don’t you?”

"Well, yeah," Lartius replied. "What other option do we have? I can’t think of another way to diminish the pack without the rest of them immediately coming after us. Say I throw a knife, and it gets Eunia in the neck. They’ll know it’s me and that I’m nearby. It’d be too dangerous and stupid to try and hide. If I ran for it, they’d catch up to me."

"Why are you saying it like that?" Rendwick asked.

"Like what?"

"You keep saying ‘I’ and ‘me’. Like you’re doing this alone. We’re in this together, remember?"

"I know, I just meant hypothetically."

"Yeah, but even hypothetically, why would you be alone in this?" Rendwick challenged. "Why would you think that I wouldn’t be right there next to you?"

Lartius was taken aback. He tried to find the right words. “No, I just meant-“

A slow grin appeared on Rendwick’s face and Lartius stopped.

"Why do you give me a hard time like that?" Lartius asked.

Rendwick shrugged. “It’s fun. You get all flustered.”

"Shut up," Lartius said, laughing a little.

Rendwick was laughing, too. His smile made Lartius’ heart flutter. He felt a fleeting impulse to reach over and kiss Rendwick, but he pushed it aside. It could wait until they got back to the hideout. Thinking quickly, Lartius looked up at the sky, just to give himself something to do.

"You think it’s dark enough yet?" Rendwick asked.

Lartius contemplated it for a second, then nodded. “Yeah. It’s time.”

They both got up and made their way to the other side of the building, facing the park. Lartius unzipped his backpack, fiddled around a little, and pulled out the parachute. He separated the parachute from the metal case and made sure the strings weren’t tangled. Lartius glanced down very carefully to see where exactly the guy from Five was sitting.

"Can you see okay?" Rendwick asked in a whisper.

"Sort of," Lartius replied. "Not really."

Rendwick reached into his backpack, pulled out his night vision shades, and handed them to Lartius. He nodded in thanks, put them on, and looked down again. The shades were amazing, he could see so much more clearly. He found the guy from Five, still with his back to him. The pine trees he was sitting in between were pretty tall, but Lartius was hoping the parachute wouldn’t get caught on the branches. If it got stuck in the tree, it was gone. They had no way of getting it out.

Rendwick was glancing around, spear in hand. It was a little harder to see in the dark, but he didn’t ask Lartius for the shades back. Lartius’ hand flexed around the metal case. He aimed, and then threw it between the trees.

The second Lartius threw the parachute, he immediately remembered that when a parachute was sent down, it emitted a beeping noise and had a flashing light. If the guy from Five noticed the light wasn’t working or that there was no beeping, he might suspect it was a trick. But after a couple of seconds in the air, Lartius saw the flashing light and faintly heard the beeping noise. He breathed a sigh of relief. He guessed that the beeping and light worked when the parachute was in the air. He was even more relieved when he missed the branches entirely and the parachute floated down directly over the guy from Five.

As soon as the guy from Five looked up and noticed the parachute, Lartius and Rendwick stepped back a little as a precaution. Lartius could still see him catch the parachute and open it.

"Did he fall for it?" Rendwick asked.

Lartius watched the guy from Five take a few berries and eat them.

"Yep," Lartius replied, nodding. "It worked."

Sure enough, a few seconds later, he keeled over and the cannon boomed. Lartius quickly looked around to make sure no one else was there, and went for the fire escape.

"Where are you going?" Rendwick asked.

"To get the parachute back before the hovercraft gets here," Lartius replied. He took off the shades and handed them back to Rendwick.

Both of them quickly climbed down to the sidewalk and Lartius went into the park to retrieve the parachute. Rendwick followed close behind him, still glancing around to make sure no one was following them. Lartius pried the container from the guy from Five, closed it, put it back into the case, and clipped the parachute back to the top. He quickly wrapped the case in the parachute and tucked it back inside his backpack.

"Are we good?" Lartius asked Rendwick, straightening up.

"Yup," Rendwick replied, nodding. "Let’s head back."

They climbed back up the fire escape and made their way from rooftop to rooftop back down to 15th Street and Avenue F.

"It worked," Rendwick said to Lartius.

Lartius nodded. “Yeah.” There was a tone of relief to his voice.

"You sound like you thought it wouldn’t," Rendwick said.

"No, I was just nervous, hoping it would work. Like, right before I threw it, I was just hoping it wouldn’t get caught in the trees and that it would beep and light up. I had last minute worries about that. I’m glad it did work, and we got it back so we could use it again."

Rendwick was about to reach for Lartius’ shoulder, but resisted. He kept reminding himself of the cameras in the arena.

"And now you can relax," Rendwick said.

"Yeah, tonight. At least a little," Lartius said. "Then, tomorrow we have to diminish the pack."

Rendwick nodded. They both turned left and walked back to Avenue F before walking back down towards 15th Street. Lartius did feel more relaxed now that he knew his theory worked. He wasn’t too anxious to try it tomorrow night on the other high-district tributes. He figured he would be more anxious when the time came.

As they walked further downtown, Rendwick kept looking up at stars dotting the artificial sky. He’d never noticed before because he’d spent his nights in the hideout. It reminded him of summer nights back home. During the summer, there was considerably less light pollution so everyone in District 4 could see the sky like this at night. Rendwick was so lost up in the stars that he almost didn’t notice they had arrived at the hideout. Lartius noticed where he was looking and tipped his head back to look up at the sky.

"It’s amazing," Rendwick said. "It’s not real, but it’s still amazing."

Lartius smiled. He pushed the panel open and they both went inside. Rendwick pushed the panel back into the frame as Lartius reached inside his backpack and turned on his flashlight. Although it was a decent source of light, Lartius wished it were brighter. Or that he’d gotten a lantern from the Cornucopia. He dropped his backpack and sat down against the wall.

"It was a good day," Lartius decided.

Rendwick smiled. “Yeah, it was.” He propped his spear against the wall and dropped his own backpack onto the floor. He sat down next to Lartius, wrapping an arm around his shoulders.

"How long do you think before the anthem?" Lartius asked.

Rendwick paused for a second, thinking. “Not that long, probably. We came back pretty late.”

Lartius shifted in his seat so he was facing Rendwick. He leaned his head against his. He felt Rendwick pull him in a little closer.

"Just for the record," Lartius said, "I know we’re in this together."

Rendwick smiled a little. “I know you do. I know what you meant back there. I was just trying to get you to loosen up a little so you wouldn’t be so nervous.”

Lartius nodded. “Well, it worked. You made me laugh.”

Rendwick’s smile widened.

"But uh," Lartius continued, "you did it, too."

Rendwick looked nonplussed. “I did?”

"About the parachute before we left. You asked me if I was going to test it out, not ‘we’."

Rendwick nodded. “Oh. Yeah. I didn’t even notice that.” His thumb brushed back and forth on Lartius’ shoulder. “Sorry.”

"It’s okay," Lartius said.

"Are you sure?" Rendwick asked. "I don’t want to make things complicated."

"No, it’s fine," Lartius replied, looking at him. "We both knew what we meant."

Rendwick looked back at Lartius. He was about to kiss him when the anthem started playing from outside. The two of them got up and went out on the fire escape. They watched the Capitol seal vanish in the artificial sky and the face of the male tribute from District 5 appear in its place. The tribute they killed with the parachute full of nightlock.

"This is where the Games get harder," Lartius said as they went back inside the hideout. "When the number of dead tributes goes down."

Rendwick pushed the panel back into the frame, nodding. “It was just one person today. Yesterday it was two, and the day before it was three.”

"And the day before that was the bloodbath," Lartius said, slowly.

Rendwick looked at him. “That can’t be right. The bloodbath was only three days ago?”

Lartius leaned his back against the wall. “I think so.”

"God, that’s so weird. Especially since the last few days have gone by so fast."

"I thought today went by a little slower," Lartius said. "I mean yeah, we went out twice but we weren’t out for that long. We spent most of our time in here."

Rendwick nodded. The two of them straightened out their blankets that were still on the floor. They both knew it was time to get some sleep. Once they were lying down, Lartius reached for his flashlight. Rendwick reached over and wrapped his arm around Lartius’ shoulder again, pulling him into his chest. He noticed his right arm didn’t sting as much anymore. He wasn’t sure if the stinging in his arm was subsiding or if he was just used to it now.

Lartius gazed up at Rendwick, but couldn’t make out his face in the darkened room. His hand glided up Rendwick’s chest until it found the back of his head. He felt the tip of Rendwick’s nose on his forehead. He felt it move slowly down to the tip of his own nose. He felt Rendwick’s lips meet his, and tightened his grip on him, pulling him down a little more.

When they broke apart, Lartius rested his cheek on Rendwick’s chest, his forehead by Rendwick’s collarbone. His hand slid down from the back of Rendwick’s head to his chest, feeling Rendwick’s heartbeat. He smiled to himself as Rendwick’s chest rose and fell in time with his breathing.

Rendwick didn’t remember falling asleep, but he did remember waking up sharply in the middle of the night. It was still pretty dark inside the hideout. He couldn’t see Lartius’ face, but he still felt him in his arms. He shut his eyes again and tried to go back to sleep, his grip on Lartius shifting a little. He moved his other arm to Lartius’ waist.

As Rendwick felt Lartius’ slow rhythmic breathing against him, a horrible thought passed through his mind: at most, only one of them would survive this.

That’s one thing he never learned in the Training Center.

Never fall in love at the Games.

DISTRICT 1 Phox Baxwoll Volumnia Roxen
DISTRICT 2 Lartius Rankine Eunia Allardyce
DISTRICT 3 Alto Whishart Fannia Lapworth
DISTRICT 4 Rendwick Combe Nitya Flamsteed
DISTRICT 5 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 6 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 7 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 8 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 9 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 10 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 11 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 12 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE

A/n: Sorry this chapter took so long to post. A) School and Game of Thrones got in the way. B) I knew it was going to be more subdued than the rest of them and I tried not to let it get boring. And then it became probably my gayest chapter yet. I might as well have titled it, “GAY DIDDY GAY GAY GAY GAY LOOK AT ALL THE GAY”.

The Deal

Disclaimer: Again, the parachute idea is not mine. Credit goes to weasleysweaters for her sheer genius.

Rendwick was grateful that the next three days were spent mostly in the hideout. Lartius said that time passed slower in there. Waking up next to Lartius every morning brought about a strong surge of what felt like electricity in his chest. He wanted to preserve it as long as he could. It sounded cheesy, but he wished he could freeze these moments, so they would never be tarnished.

Those three days passed the same way. It had gotten a little colder outside, so most of their time was spent inside the hideout. Despite everything, they never ran out of things to talk about. The time they spent together in the hideout made them feel like they weren’t even in the arena anymore, like they were just two normal people. It felt safe. Lartius thought the two of them would get bored of doing the same thing day after day, but they didn’t. He was grateful for Rendwick’s company. If he could, he would never leave the hideout.

They only left to get food for the day or to look for the other high-district tributes at sunset. Lartius was getting a little annoyed. He and Rendwick had gone out every night looking for the high-district tributes, but they hadn’t found them for three days. He grew increasingly frustrated each night.

“We run into them by accident every day,” Lartius had said the night before. “And now when we go looking for them, we can’t find them. It’s like they vanished.”

Rendwick watched him pace around the room. “Okay well, we know they didn’t vanish. We know they’re somewhere in the arena.”

“Yeah, but this arena is huge,” Lartius argued. “It feels like we can only find them if we’re not looking for them, but that just sounds crazy and ridiculous, and I don’t want this arena to drive me nuts, I just-”

Without even thinking, Rendwick stepped towards Lartius, wrapped his arms around him, and pulled him into his chest. He didn’t say anything, didn’t tell him to relax, he just waited for it to happen. Lartius slowly reached his arms up around Rendwick’s neck.

After a few deep breaths, Lartius was calm. He looked up at Rendwick. “Thanks.”

Rendwick just smiled down at him and kissed him.

Rendwick soon discovered that this was his way of calming Lartius down when he got worked up and frustrated. Lartius appreciated how Rendwick knew how to deal with him like this.

Lartius didn’t seem to have realized their chances of survival like Rendwick had. Every time he was reminded of it, he felt a horrible chill pass through his body. He tried to put it out of his mind, even though he knew they would talk about it eventually. He felt it easier to just compartmentalize it and not think about it too much. He tried not to let it show on his face either, but Lartius had gotten to know him pretty well and noticed that something was wrong. But whenever he asked Rendwick, he always said it was nothing.

Their food supply was starting to deteriorate. The dried beef strips were gone, the rabbit was gone, the crackers were almost gone, and so was the bread. Soon, all they’d have to eat were the birds in the park, but Rendwick didn’t know how long the birds would be in the arena. He was worried the Gamemakers might pull some stunt and remove them.

Three days had gone by without any more deaths. Aside from the other high-district tributes, the only other person left was the girl from District 12. Lartius didn’t really think she was important, since she wasn’t a threat. The other high-district tributes were more important. They had to be dealt with first.

Lartius had adjusted his perception of time in the arena. If they spent the day outside the hideout, time would speed up and their day would be over before they knew it. But inside the hideout, time seemed to slow down. At first, Lartius found time to pass way too slowly, but he became accustomed to it. He preferred the hideout. The way time would pass out in the open arena made him feel rushed.

Lartius also noticed that their kisses seemed to evolve over time. At first, they were a little hesitant, as if they were checking to see if this was what they wanted. The last few days, their kisses were deep and passionate. They explored each other with their eyes shut and their hands wandering everywhere. They didn’t go too far too quickly, because Rendwick wanted to take it slow, but they went a little further every day. Their passion didn’t fade as the days passed, but Lartius had noticed that some of their kisses became more affectionate.

Their mornings were always very slow when they woke up. Since it had gotten colder the last few days, they woke up with their arms wrapped around each other, using their body heat for warmth. They spoke to each other in low whispers, debating on when to go out to get food. Although neither of them wanted to put off getting food, neither of them wanted to leave the hideout to do it. Outside the hideout, they were exposed, on display. They couldn’t freely be themselves. Inside the hideout, they didn’t care how they were because no one was watching them.

The weather was much nicer on the fourth day. They noticed it the minute they woke up. Rendwick’s arm was draped over Lartius’ waist, but moved up his hand to his jaw. His hand reached up a little higher, his fingertips brushing back and forth above Lartius’ ear. Lartius smiled a little and inched himself closer to Rendwick.

“How d’you sleep?” Lartius asked him.

“Good. You?”

Lartius nodded. “Mhm. Good.”

“How’s your arm?” Rendwick asked.

Lartius reached instinctively for the spot beneath his elbow. “Better.”

“It doesn’t sting anymore?”

“A little less. It could be worse.”

“You feel all right? No fever or anything?” He reached up to feel Lartius’ forehead.

“No, I’m good. What about you?”

“I’m fine, too.”

Rendwick’s right hand trailed into Lartius’ hair. He pulled Lartius in and kissed him. Lartius reached up and cupped Rendwick’s cheek, kissing him back a little deeper. Rendwick’s left hand moved to the other side of Lartius’ face, while his right hand trailed back down to Lartius’ waist.

Lartius’ mind always seemed to fog up when they kissed. His hand moved to the back of Rendwick’s head. Everything he worried about or stressed about vanished. It felt like none of it was real anymore, and that Rendwick was the only thing that was real to him. His body curved into Rendwick’s, his other hand gripping Rendwick’s shoulder as he dove in for more. He always wanted more. His body and heart yearned for it. It got to the point where he had to keep reminding himself, “Oh right, we’re in the Hunger Games.”

“We need to go out soon,” Lartius said against Rendwick’s mouth.

“Mhm.” Rendwick kept kissing him, his hand pushing up the hem of Lartius’ shirt.

Lartius felt his spine buck up at the feel of Rendwick’s hand on his bare skin. “Seriously, we need to get food.”

“Yeah.” Rendwick’s hand slid to the small of Lartius’ back. A small sigh escaped Lartius’ lips.

“I mean it,” Lartius said, his voice a little more muffled.

Rendwick could feel Lartius smiling against his mouth. He nodded a little, but kept kissing him.

“Come on,” Lartius said, breaking the kiss and looking Rendwick in the eye. “We really need to go.”

Finally, Rendwick sighed in defeat. “Fine. I know when I’ve lost you.”

Lartius laughed a little and kissed him a couple more times. He got up and put his backpack on. He pulled Rendwick to his feet, who wrapped an arm around Lartius’ waist and kissed him again. Lartius noticed that Rendwick had become progressively more “hands-on”, for lack of a better word. He felt Rendwick’s hand slide even further down to cup his backside. Lartius gave a sharp intake of breath and laughed a little, breaking the kiss.

“That’s new,” Lartius remarked.

“Yeah, thought I’d give it a shot,” Rendwick replied with a grin.

They both laughed. Rendwick kissed him again, wrapping his other arm around him. Rendwick wished they didn’t have to go out.

“Okay, I really mean it, we need to go.”

Rendwick looked at him. His arms loosened around Lartius’ waist. “You’re giving me the face again,” he said.

“What face?” Lartius asked.

“That face,” Rendwick said, pointing. “I’ve found out that I end up doing whatever you want because of that face.” He kissed Lartius one more time. “So, fine.”

Lartius grinned. Rendwick finally let go of Lartius to get his backpack and spear. The two of them carefully stepped out onto the fire escape and onto the roof, and made their way to 23rd Street. Lartius scanned the park once it came into view and found it empty. He saw the sun reflecting brightly in the fountain and bouncing off the windows of the nearby buildings. Before they reached the fire escape, Lartius scanned the park more thoroughly, just to be sure. No sounds of life, no shapes walking beneath the tree branches. The two of them climbed down the fire escape and crossed the street into the park.

They looked around as they entered the park. They’d become accustomed to it, always making sure they weren’t being followed. Lartius handed his canteen to Rendwick, who went straight to the fountains to refill. Lartius looked through the trees for birds. This had been their system for the last three days whenever they were in the parks to get food and water.

It took a while for Lartius to get food. He could feel that the birds knew what was coming when the knives came out. Eventually, he was able to take down his targets, pluck them, and clean them out before he started the fire. Rendwick came back from the fountain and handed Lartius back his now-full canteen. Lartius nodded in thanks, swung his backpack off his shoulders, and tucked his canteen away.

“You want to me cook?” Rendwick asked.

“No, I’ll do it,” Lartius said. “You did it last time.”

Rendwick nodded. He gripped his spear a little tighter and began scanning the surrounding area. Having to keep watch always made him a little jittery in anticipation. Every little noise made him jump. He wanted to be ready the second he saw someone.

Today was a little weird. He thought Lartius was taking much longer than usual to get the birds done. He kept glancing back at him to see how he was doing. He felt very warm under his jacket. He glanced up at the sky, shielding his eyes from the sun.

“Do you feel that?” Rendwick asked.

“The drought? Yeah.” Lartius took off his jacket and wiped his forehead on the back of his forearm.

Rendwick shrugged off his own backpack and jacket. He gripped his spear so tightly that his palm was sweating. The heat was making Rendwick anxious and a little paranoid. The longer he kept watch, the more frantically he scanned each side of the park.

Lartius noticed he was on edge. “Hey, relax.”

Rendwick looked at him. “What?”

“Relax,” Lartius repeated. “I’m almost done.”

Rendwick nodded. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself down a little. He had a million thoughts about the weather in the arena, but he couldn’t put those into words with the cameras watching him and Lartius. They were careful not to talk about any specific concerns about the Games or the arena. That had to wait until they were back at the hideout.

“Okay, all done,” Lartius said.

Rendwick let out a breath and nodded. He put his backpack on, and tied the sleeves of his jacket around one of the straps.

Lartius stuck the cooked birds inside his backpack. “We’ll be safer out of the sun. Ready?”

Rendwick was about to lead the way back to the hideout when he suddenly stopped. Lartius looked to his right and found him staring into one of the trees.

“Hey.” Lartius tapped him on the arm. “What are you looking at?”

“I think there’s a bird’s nest in there,” Rendwick said, pointing.

“So?”

“Hold this,” Rendwick said, passing Lartius his spear. He reached up to the thicker, sturdier branches and climbed up the tree. He lifted himself up three or four more branches before he stopped. “I knew it.”

“What?” Lartius asked.

Rendwick jumped down, holding the bird’s nest. “There are eggs in here.” His eyes squinted up at the sun then down to the black road. “Let’s see just how hot it is out here,” Rendwick said, moving to the sidewalk. Rendwick carefully cracked the egg on the curb and split it open. The contents sizzled as soon as they hit the black concrete.

“Do you have a knife with a really wide blade?” Rendwick asked Lartius.

“Uh, probably,” Lartius said. “Hang on.”

He propped the spear against his shoulder as he looked through the inner pockets of his jacket. He found his widest blade and passed it to Rendwick, hilt first. Lartius watched the egg whites brighten as they cooked on the hot stone. Rendwick cracked another two eggs on the curb.

Thinking quickly, Lartius put down Rendwick’s spear and took out the parachute from his backpack. He quickly unclipped the parachute, opened the case, and took out the tin container. He took out the nightlock, still resting on the napkin, but used his spare t-shirt from his backpack to clean out the container in the fountain anyway, as a precaution. He tried to work quickly, since the water was fading. He passed the container to Rendwick, who looked at it cautiously.

“It’s clean, right?” he asked Lartius.

Lartius nodded. Rendwick took the container, used the knife to scoop up the four fried eggs as carefully as he could without breaking them, and stuck them inside. Lartius wrapped the napkin around the nightlock and stuck it inside the case, clipping the parachute back on, and tucking it away in his backpack.

“This’ll make a nice change from all the birds we’ve been eating the last several days,” Lartius said as he watched him.

Rendwick nodded as he screwed the lid back on the metal container. He passed Lartius back his knife and put the metal container in his backpack. “Okay, let’s get out of this heat.”

Lartius nodded in agreement. He gave Rendwick his spear back, and the two of them climbed back up the fire escape, traveling across the rooftops back to the hideout. The sun was beating down hard on them so they walked a little faster to get back. Lartius looked at Rendwick and saw a trace of determination across his face. He knew Rendwick wanted to get back to the hideout, but given how Rendwick didn’t even want to let Lartius go this morning, he had a feeling that Rendwick would be all over him the second the panel was shut.

When they got back to 15th Street and were safely back inside the hideout, Rendwick pushed Lartius up against the closed panel and kissed him. He put his spear against the wall and wrapped his arms around Lartius. Lartius let himself get lost in the moment. They had their food and water, and they were away from the sunlight. Lartius pushed Rendwick forward a little so he could take off his backpack and drop it by his feet. His arms went around Rendwick’s neck. Rendwick slid his own backpack off his shoulders and onto the floor.

The two of them eventually found their way to the floor, Lartius’ back against the wall. Rendwick pushed Lartius’ jacket off him. One of his hands slid up Rendwick’s back, the other went up to his cheek. Rendwick’s body curved on top of Lartius’. Their arms and hands were constantly moving: Lartius’ arms wrapped around Rendwick’s shoulders, Rendwick’s hand went down to the small of Lartius’ back, one of Lartius’ hands reached up to the back of Rendwick’s head, into his hair.

After a while, Rendwick came up for air, his forehead inches away from Lartius’, trapping him under his gaze. Lartius always felt a magnetic pull between them when they had eye contact like this. Rendwick leaned in and kissed him again, very slowly. Lartius tightened his grip on him a little. Rendwick felt a thrill around his heart, stretching out to the rest of his body, all the way down to his fingertips. He pulled back to look at Lartius again.

“We should eat, probably,” Rendwick said.

“Yeah,” Lartius agreed, laughing a little. He kissed Rendwick one more time.

Rendwick reached into his backpack for the eggs. As he took the container out, he noticed a thin pocket inside his backpack. He’d completely missed it on the first day of the Games. He put the container down and reached into the pocket, pulling out a knife, fork, and spoon.

He held them up to Lartius. “I had no idea these were even in here.”

Lartius laughed again. Rendwick handed him the fork and put the knife back into the pocket. He unscrewed the lid off the container and carefully slid two eggs onto the lid for himself. He passed the container to Lartius.

“We’re gonna have to clean this out before we use it tonight,” Lartius said, holding up the container.

“If we can get water from one of the fountains, though,” Rendwick said.

“Yeah, and if we can’t, we can probably use whatever water we have left over. Just not all of it.”

Rendwick nodded and took a bite of his eggs. Lartius was right, it was a nice change from all the birds they’d been eating. It actually felt like breakfast to him.

The air was much cooler inside the hideout. They always felt much more comfortable in there. They were more relaxed, they were shielded from the rest of the world, and they weren’t afraid to simply be themselves. That last part applied to Rendwick more than Lartius. Rendwick did want to feel more comfortable in his own skin, enough to be honest and come out. Lartius had told him everyone went at their own pace. Rendwick had no idea how long it would take before he felt comfortable enough to come out.

One thing Rendwick really liked about his relationship with Lartius was that it felt surprisingly natural. Rendwick didn’t feel like he had to be a certain way, or say what Lartius wanted to hear, but they never ran out of things to talk about. They tried to steer clear of the Games a lot of the time, so most of their conversations were about their past and their childhoods. Eventually, the topic did go back to the Games.

“There is an upside to the drought,” Lartius said.

Rendwick looked at him. “There is?”

Lartius nodded. “We know where the troupe is gonna be tonight, at the park on 23rd Street.”

“Are you sure?” Rendwick asked.

“Remember that makeshift tent they made with the blankets stretched out between the trees? They’re gonna be under that to hide from the sun. By the time night falls, they’ll have a place to camp out since there’s water nearby.”

“Hopefully they won’t be under the tent when you throw down the parachute or they might not notice it,” Rendwick said.

“Nah, they probably would,” Lartius countered. He took his canteen from his backpack. “They’d heard it land on the blankets and the beeping noise. The trick would be getting it into the trees without it getting caught on the branches.”

Rendwick nodded. “True.”

Lartius drank from his canteen. Rendwick put down the empty container lid and tucked his spoon into the thin inner pocket of his backpack.

“So we’re diminishing the pack tonight,” Rendwick said.

Lartius nodded. He felt his excitement mount a little. He almost couldn’t wait for it to be sunset so he could finally put the big plan in motion. Testing the theory on the guy from District 5 was good practice, but the big test was the other high-district tributes.

“You nervous?” Rendwick asked.

Lartius shook his head. “I probably will be when the time comes, though.” He drank from his canteen again. “I kind of just want this to be over, you know? The sooner we diminish the pack, the closer we are to the finish line.”

Rendwick felt his stomach tie itself into knots. The idea of the end of the Games reminded him that only one of them would go home alive. He felt his shoulders tense up. He stared at the floor.

“What’s wrong?” Lartius asked.

“Nothing,” Rendwick replied brusquely.

There was a pause. Then Lartius said, “Look at me.”

Rendwick didn’t move. He knew what was coming.

“Look at me,” Lartius repeated, a little gentler. He turned Rendwick’s chin in his direction. “That’s the sixth time in four days that I’ve asked you what was wrong and you always said it was nothing. I know when you’re lying to me.”

Rendwick still didn’t say anything. He should’ve known that keeping this from Lartius was a bad idea. It’s not like that thought was never going to cross his mind.

Lartius’ hand traveled up to Rendwick’s cheek. “Talk to me,” Lartius said. “Please.”

Rendwick took a deep breath. “All right.” He turned himself in his seat so he was facing Lartius. “A few days ago, I kind of had the sudden realization that…” He pressed his lips together.

“That what?” Lartius urged.

“That at the end of all this… only one of us will be alive,” Rendwick finished heavily.

Lartius froze. That thought had completely slipped his mind. How could he have forgotten something so important?

“I mean, it’s not like I went into this thinking we both could live,” Rendwick said. “I just got a little lost in what we have that I lost sight of what all of this was for in the first place. To have one Victor.”

Lartius felt his stomach sink. His hand dropped down to the floor. He remembered back in the Justice Building back home, when Jax asked him if he was going to win. Jax was probably watching eagerly, waking up at the crack of dawn, waiting for the Games to come on. He wanted to see his brother win. But Rendwick was the last person Lartius wanted to kill.

“I knew not talking to you about this was a bad idea, but I didn’t want to face it, or it would become real for both of us, like it is right now. I’ve been coping by just making the most of whatever time I have left with you,” Rendwick said.

“So you just tried to put it out of your mind for as long as you could?” Lartius asked.

Rendwick nodded. “I’m pretty good at that.”

Lartius put down his empty container and drew his knees into his chest, wrapping his arms around them. He stared at the tops of his shoes. He understood why Rendwick didn’t tell him, why he didn’t want to talk about it. Part of him wished he’d never asked him what was wrong.

“What’s on your mind?”

Lartius didn’t look at him. “My brother.”

He didn’t have to say anything else. Rendwick instantly slid over on the floor to sit next to him. He put one arm around his shoulders. His forehead rested against Lartius’ temple. They didn’t say anything. They just sat in silence for a while.

“What about him?” Rendwick finally asked.

Lartius paused. “After the Reaping, when my family came to say good-bye, he asked me if I was going to win. I said yes.” He kept his eyes down. “But now I don’t want to anymore.”

“You don’t?”

“Not if it means killing you to get there. After everything we’ve gone through together? I could never do that,” Lartius said firmly. “I mean, despite the circumstance, this - what we have - is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

A small smile tugged at Rendwick’s lips.

“But yeah, the timing’s really shitty, but I don’t know if there’s a way around that.”

“There has to be something, some way we can both get through this,” Rendwick said.

“That just sounds impossible. How?”

“I don’t know. I’ll tell you when I think of it.”

Lartius shifted in his seat so his back was against Rendwick’s chest. Rendwick wrapped his arms around him and rested his chin on his shoulder. This was how the last few days were spent in the hideout, the two of them just talking like that. The mood was very different today.

“You said, um,” Lartius said suddenly, “that you were making the most of what time we had left together.”

Rendwick nodded.

“Is that why you’ve been more, uh… hands-y with me lately?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

Rendwick pulled him in a little tighter. The two of them sat in silence, thinking of some kind of loophole they could use or trick they could pull. Lartius couldn’t seem to come up with anything and was starting to panic a little. They had to come up with something. He didn’t want to lose Rendwick.

Rendwick could practically feel Lartius’ panic seep into his own body. Panicking always caused him to jump to the worst-case scenario. He tried to avoid imagining what it would be like if Lartius had died and he was crowned Victor. It made his heart clench tightly. His grip on Lartius tightened a little more on instinct. Lartius reached for Rendwick’s wrist, gripping tightly in response. Rendwick felt Lartius curl up against his chest, as if he was trying to burrow himself into Rendwick’s body.

Rendwick’s determination felt strong, like it was speeding all throughout his body. He was determined not to panic and determined to find some kind of a solution to their problem. He refused to believe that it was impossible, like Lartius said it was.

“Think of anything yet?” Rendwick asked after a while.

Lartius shook his head. “No. You?”

“Nothing.” Rendwick’s arms shifted around Lartius. “But we can’t panic. If we panic, we won’t be able to think straight.”

“Yeah, but like I said, it sounds impossible,” Lartius said. “How can two people survive this when they only want one?”

Rendwick didn’t say anything. He immediately thought back to something he’d said before. I just got a little lost in what we have that I lost sight of what all of this was for in the first place. To have one Victor.

One Victor.

Rendwick pictured the two of them left standing after all the other tributes were dead. The Capitol would expect one of them to go for the kill. But what if neither of them did? What if they both tossed their weapons aside and refused to do it?

“Wait,” Rendwick said slowly.

“What?” Lartius asked. He sat up and turned around to look at Rendwick.

“They have to have their Victor,” Rendwick said. “One Victor. What if, when it comes down to just the two of us, we just stop? We refuse to play the Game by their rules.”

Lartius looked at Rendwick like he was crazy. “What? The Gamemakers would never let that happen. They’re both really powerful and really smart. That’s a dangerous combination. I bet they’d try to manipulate the arena to kill one of us off.”

“I think it could be harder than that sounds, though. They won’t take away the food and water because that will kill us both. And yeah, they probably will manipulate the arena somehow. If the Gamemakers can cause a drought in here, they can create something else that can kill us.”

Lartius nodded, slowly and uncertainly. “Yeah…”

“After everyone else is dead, if we stick together the whole time, whatever they create will have a shot at killing us both, and that’s exactly what they want to avoid. They can either take two Victors or none, and they want at least one survivor. Eventually, they’ll run out of ideas. They have to.”

Lartius’ uncertainty was starting to melt away. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “It’s not gonna be easy killing off just one person when there’s someone else practically joined with him at the hip.”

“Exactly. Whenever things get too calm or too boring, the Gamemakers create some sort of issue to get everyone moving again. A natural disaster, some crazy mutts, something.” Rendwick fiddled with the cuff of Lartius’ sleeve.

“I think they might go with natural disaster,” Lartius said. “Since they made a drought, then made it rain, and made it cold for three days, it makes more sense than another mutt. Unless they make the squirrels go out searching for us.”

“If they made it rain, they can make it snow in here, too,” Rendwick said.

“Yeah, and then we’d all freeze to death.” Lartius reached up to Rendwick’s shoulder. “Do you think the Gamemakers could make a hurricane or tornado in here?”

“Don’t say that too loud, you’ll give them ideas.”

Lartius grinned. “But, do you think they could?”

Rendwick let out a puff of air. “Probably. But I don’t think it could be anything strong enough to get to us from out there.”

“So, once it’s down to just the two of us, we have to elude any possible threat or obstacle engineered by the Gamemakers.” Easier said than done, he thought to himself. “How long do you think that will last?” he asked.

“A long time,” Rendwick said. “If they’re smart enough to create new arenas year after year, they probably have a million ideas on how they can try to separate us. It’s not gonna be easy, but I really don’t care.” His hand went up to Lartius’ shoulder. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Lartius gave him a half smile. “Same here.” He reached for Rendwick’s wrist.

“We have to take this one step at a time, though,” Rendwick said. “For now, we focus on eliminating everyone else. Once they’re gone, then we focus on surviving whatever the Gamemakers throw at us. And whatever they do throw at us, I really think that all we need to do is stay inside here. They don’t know exactly where we are.”

“They’re trying to figure it out, though,” Lartius said. His hand went to his forearm, where his tracker was planted under his skin.

“They probably will figure it out at some point.”

“Will we have to look for a new hideout?”

“There’s no point. When I found this place, the glue on the panel in the window wasn’t completely dry, that’s how I was able to get it open. It was one of the last touches the Gamemakers made on the arena. At this point, the rest of the windows are gonna be completely stuck. We could break them to get into the rooms, but the Gamemakers would know. If the panel in that window had a camera, the other panels will have cameras, too.”

Lartius was silent for a while, tapping his thumb against Rendwick’s shoulder. He tried to think of every possible obstacle that could be thrown at them. “Could they destroy the buildings, maybe?”

“I doubt it. They preserve all the arenas after each Games are finished. If we kept moving, they’d have to destroy all the buildings and the arena would just be a barren, ruined wasteland. That’s also why they might not make a possible natural disaster too dangerous, in case some of the buildings go down, too.”

Lartius nodded. “Especially since all the buildings have cameras. They don’t want to lose track of us.”

“We need to be prepared for anything and everything, basically,” Rendwick said. “We need to keep our eyes peeled for any danger. And we need to stick together and have each other’s back no matter what.”

Out of everything Rendwick said, that last sentence was the only thing that Lartius truly understood 100%. This was something he was committed to doing ever since they’d become allies. Protect Rendwick, keep him safe.

“This plan is either really smart or really crazy,” Lartius said.

“There’s a fine line between madness and brilliance,” Rendwick said, grinning.

Lartius grinned back, eyebrows raised a little. “Really?”

Rendwick nodded. Lartius laced his hand with Rendwick’s. “Do you really think this could work?”

Rendwick let out half a sigh. “I don’t know, honestly. And the fact that I don’t know what could be coming in the next few days terrifies me. But I’m not going down without a fight. And I want to keep you safe.”

It was funny how much their relationship changed in a few days. Whenever they almost ran into the other high-district tributes, Rendwick would always pull Lartius back, out of harm’s way. Lartius didn’t like that so much, because he felt like he could take care of himself. But now, he deeply appreciated Rendwick looking out for him like this. He wanted to return the favor.

“Okay. So, that’s our plan. After the others are gone, we stick together and we protect each other.”

Lartius laughed a little. “When you say it like that, the plan doesn’t sound so insane.”

Rendwick smiled. “Deal?” He held out his hand.

Lartius shook it. “Deal.”

“And remember, we need to take this one step at a time.” He gripped Lartius’ shoulder. “So try to relax a little.”

Lartius let out a puff of air but didn’t say anything.

“You’re still trying to imagine what the Gamemakers could throw at us, aren’t you?” Rendwick said.

“Can you blame me?” Lartius asked. Rendwick could hear the nerves and slight agitation in his voice. “You said we needed to be prepared for anything and everything. I’m just going through some past Games in my head and seeing if maybe there are a few things they did back then that they could modify a little and use here. Just in case they don’t create a natural disaster in here like I thought.”

“Try and put it all aside, though,” Rendwick encouraged. “Just for now.”

“I’m not as good at compartmentalizing as you are.”

Rendwick nodded. He wrapped his arms around Lartius’ shoulders and pulled him in closer. Lartius reached his arms around Rendwick and shut his eyes, calmly breathing in and out. The warmth and comfort of Rendwick’s body made his mind feel very clear, almost blank. Maybe that was how he could learn to compartmentalize: find a suitable distraction and fixate on that.

He looked up at Rendwick and kissed him, his hand moving to the back to Rendwick’s head. He rested his forehead on Rendwick’s. He knew exactly how Rendwick had been feeling the last few days. He didn’t want to let go of him, fearing he would vanish into thin air if he did. He wanted to make the most of the time they had left. Their plan was dangerous and neither of them was sure it would work. Lartius felt his insides clench at the thought of the plan and tried to push it out of his mind.

Lartius kind of couldn’t believe that he was going along with this plan. If anyone else had suggested it to him, he would’ve dismissed it immediately. But the idea of losing Rendwick, whether at his hand or someone else’s, was unbearable. And he couldn’t think of another solution. He really didn’t have much of a choice.

Rendwick knew that Lartius wasn’t going to suddenly be calm and focused about everything. It would take time. Rendwick leaned down a little and kissed him very softly, one hand moving around to cup his face. Lartius taken aback by how gentle it was. It was an interesting contrast, since Rendwick had kept a pretty tight grip on him the last few days. Lartius felt his nerves, panic, fear, and anxiety wash away very slowly. He lost himself in Rendwick’s touch, resting his forehead on Rendwick’s again. Rendwick’s hand lowered a little, his thumb gently brushing back and forth on Lartius’ jawline.

The atmosphere felt very different today than it had the last few days. Those days they just enjoyed each other’s company. They talked a lot in between the kissing. Today, it was much more intimate and comforting, as if they were silently reminding each other, “I’m still here.”

After a while, Lartius pulled back to look at Rendwick. “Okay, I’m calm now.”

Rendwick grinned and kissed him, a little firmer this time.

“Are you just naturally good at calming people down?” Lartius asked.

Rendwick laughed. “No, not really. But, I don’t know, I kind of feel like I already know what to do for you.”

Lartius reached for one of Rendwick’s hands and laced theirs together. “Do you think if we’d kept in touch these past ten years that this would’ve still happened?”

“What? This, like, us?” Rendwick asked.

Lartius nodded. “Yeah, but without the Games.”

Rendwick thought about this. “I don’t know. I mean, if we did keep in touch, it’d be through letters or something. I doubt we’d be able to visit each other.” Rendwick’s free hand was still fiddling with Lartius’ shirt collar. “And if all we could do was send each other letters, then we wouldn’t be able to do this.”

Rendwick kissed Lartius again. Lartius could feel him smiling a little against his mouth, which made him smile in return. Rendwick’s hand left Lartius’ shirt and went up to his face. Lartius felt his smile widen when they broke apart.

“Yeah, that’d be a huge bummer,” Lartius said. Ironically, the Games gave them an opportunity they wouldn’t normally have otherwise. “So maybe this happened for a reason?” he wondered aloud.

Rendwick nodded. “Maybe.”

“Question is, what reason?”

Rendwick let out a half sigh. “I guess that’s what we have to figure out.”

“How?”

Rendwick shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s one of those things where you’ll just know it when you see it. You have to let it come to you.”

He reached up to Lartius’ hair. Lartius kissed him again, his free hand winding around to the back of Rendwick’s head. Their combined body heat made Lartius a little more calm. His body always felt strangely at peace like this.

“We should probably clean out the container so we can use it tonight,” Lartius said.

Rendwick nodded. Lartius kissed him one more time, then scooted away a little and reached for the container on the floor.

“Where’d you put the container lid?” Lartius asked.

“Uhhhh…” Rendwick scanned the floor around him. “Here,” he said, handing it to Lartius.

Lartius reached over again for his canteen and shook it to hear how much water he had left. He didn’t drink much of it, but he didn’t want to waste it during a drought.

“Should we take a chance and go out to clean this?” Lartius held up the container.

“Does it really smell like eggs?” Rendwick asked.

Lartius sniffed it and nodded. “Do you think there’ll be any water in the fountain?”

Rendwick shrugged. “Only one way to find out.”

The two of them got up. Rendwick swung his backpack over his shoulders. Lartius reached for his jacket on the floor and slid it on.

“You’re gonna wear your jacket out there?” Rendwick asked. “It’s getting really hot out. I’m leaving mine behind.”

“I can’t leave mine,” Lartius replied. “It has all my knives in it.”

Rendwick nodded understandingly. “Do you think they’re already at the park on 23rd Street?”

“They might be,” Lartius replied, pulling his backpack on. “Just to be safe, we should go to the park on the west side.”

Rendwick took his spear and pulled the panel open. The sun beat down heavily on them as they stepped outside. Rendwick held up his free hand to shield his eyes from the sun. They made a left and walked towards the west side park.

“Do you remember it being this brutal last time there was a drought?” Lartius asked.

“No,” Rendwick replied. “This drought might be worse than the first one.”

Lartius felt a little nervous. If this drought was worse than the first one, there might not be any water in the fountains in any of the parks. He really didn’t want to waste the water he had now. He was already starting to feel hot under his jacket and they hadn’t even been in the sun that long.

The heat made the walk to the park feel much longer. Lartius could practically feel the park pull further away the more they walked. His nerves made his mind a little frantic, and he began to walk a little faster. Rendwick caught him gently by the arm.

“Hey, relax,” he said. “We’ll get there. And we’ll make this quick.”

Lartius nodded.

“Breathe,” Rendwick instructed, grinning a little.

Lartius laughed a little but obliged. Deep breath in, and out through the nose.

“All right,” Rendwick said, letting go of Lartius’ arm. “Let’s keep moving.”

Lartius did his best to keep himself calm the rest of the walk there. The sun felt very heavy on both of them. Rendwick kept tugging at his shirt collar. Some of the rooftops were very bright when the sun hit them, so they were both squinting throughout the walk. Rendwick kept one hand over his eyes, shielding them from the sunlight. Lartius reached for one of the side pockets of his backpack found his sunglasses, and put them on.

Lartius remembered what he’d said to Rendwick last night after they’d tried and failed to find the other high district tributes again. He’d said he didn’t want this arena to drive him nuts. He had to keep a cool head. He couldn’t let his paranoia of what might happen in the arena or what the Gamemakers might do to it consume him. Although he did want to at least try and guess what they might do after he and Rendwick were the only ones left, but he had to be smart about it.

When they finally reached 16th Avenue, they took a right and walked uptown to 21st Street. Lartius was calmer when he saw the trees. He and Rendwick quickened their paces and climbed down the fire escape once they reached 21st. However, when they touched ground and looked across the street at the park, they noticed how yellow and dry the grass was. Lartius pressed his lips together. He really hoped there would be at least some water in the fountain, but the dry grass made his hopes plummet a little.

When they crossed the street into the park, Lartius headed straight for the fountain. The inside of the fountain caught the sunlight and bounced it off Lartius’ sunglasses. Instant relief settled in his chest. There was water left.

“Is there any water?” Rendwick asked.

Lartius nodded. “Some.” He dipped the container and lid into the water and shrugged off his backpack.

“How is it?”

“Warm,” Lartius replied. “It’s been out in the sun for a while.” He reached into his backpack and pulled out his spare t-shirt. It was still damp from this morning. He heard a distinct humming sound above his head. He looked up and saw bees buzzing around in the air above him.

Rendwick noticed them, too. “Tracker jackers?” he asked.

Lartius shook his head slowly. “I don’t think so. They’re too small. They’re probably just normal bees.”

Lartius’ attention returned to the fountain. He cleaned out the container and the lid, then he smelled both of them. They seemed okay to him.

He passed the container and lid to Rendwick. “What do you think?”

Rendwick smelled both of them. “I don’t smell anything.”

“Good.” Lartius took them back and dried them both off with the dry side of his t-shirt. He reached into his backpack and pulled out the parachute and metal case. He took the nightlock from inside the case, put it back into the container, dried it off again, and put it back inside the metal case, and put everything back into his backpack.

“Done?” Rendwick asked.

“Yeah, all done. Let’s head back.”

“You know,” Rendwick said, as they crossed the street, “I didn’t think there would be water at all.”

“I didn’t either when I first saw the grass,” Lartius replied, gesturing behind him.

“Can grass even dry out that quickly during a drought?” Rendwick asked.

“I doubt it. But anything can happen in here.”

With that, Lartius’ mind went right back to the Gamemakers. He made himself push it aside. Not now, he told himself.

They climbed back up the nearest fire escape, made their way back down to 15th Street, and took a left on 16th Avenue to get back to the hideout. Lartius did feel more relaxed now that they could put their plan in motion. His determination to diminish the pack had grown every night. He wanted them gone and out of the way. He wanted it now more than ever, what with his and Rendwick’s deal.

When they crossed rooftop after rooftop, Rendwick noticed Lartius was walking faster again, but he didn’t stop him. Instead he quickened his pace to keep up with him. He wanted to get out of the heat as quickly as he could. The sun was beating down on them pretty hard. Rendwick knew that Lartius was getting the worst of it, since he had to wear his jacket to keep his knives handy.

The trip back was less brutal, partly because they were walking faster, and partly because the sun was shining down on their backs instead of in their faces. Rendwick pulled at the collar of his t-shirt again. Lartius wiped his forehead on his forearm and took a few deep breaths to keep himself calm. They were almost there.

Before they knew it, they’d reached Avenue F. They jumped down onto the fire escape and rushed back into the hideout. Lartius sighed with relief when they were back inside. The air was much cooler out of the sunlight with the panel shut. He swung his backpack off his shoulders.

Rendwick pushed the panel back into the frame. “You feeling okay?” he asked Lartius, shedding his backpack and propping his spear up against the wall.

“Oh yeah,” Lartius replied, slipping his jack off and dropping it on the floor. “Much better.”

Rendwick felt his forehead. “You don’t feel sick, or off at all?”

“No, I’m good.” He looked at the tracker under his skin. “Arm’s fine, too. Barely any stinging. What about you?”

“No stinging. I’m good.”

Lartius leaned up and kissed him. Rendwick wrapped an arm around Lartius’ shoulders and kissed him deeper, trapping Lartius’ bottom lip between his own. Lartius’ hands wound up Rendwick’s back and held onto his shoulders. Rendwick’s arms moved down around Lartius’ waist. Lartius reached up to Rendwick’s face. Rendwick pushed Lartius backward into the panel. Lartius’ other hand reached up around Rendwick’s neck. The hand on Rendwick’s face went up to the back of Rendwick’s head, into his hair, pulling him down a little as they kissed even deeper.

Rendwick felt Lartius start to smile against his mouth. He pulled away a little and smiled back, their foreheads resting against each other’s. Rendwick kissed him again.

“We should eat,” he said in a low voice.

Lartius nodded. He kissed Rendwick one more time. The two of them retrieved their backpacks from the floor and sat against the wall. They pulled the cooked birds from their backpacks (thankfully, they weren’t too cold).

“At least it’ll be cooler tonight,” Rendwick said. “Remember how cold it got at night the last time there was a drought?”

Lartius nodded as he took out his canteen. “And the water and everything else should be back to normal tomorrow.”

Lartius took a bite of his bird. He felt the parachute in his backpack, which was propped up against his knee, and the plan creeped back into his mind. He thought about the next day, what they might do. Would they go out hunting for Phox and Alto to get rid of them as quickly as possible? Probably not. He knew Rendwick didn’t like hunting people down to kill them, even if it was Phox and Alto. He probably would rather wait until Phox and Alto found them, and only kill them in self-defense. Lartius understood why. Rendwick didn’t want to feel like a killer, because it just wasn’t him.

Rendwick noticed Lartius was distracted. “You’re thinking about the plan, aren’t you?”

Lartius hesitated for a second, then gave a half-nod. “Yeah, sort of. I’m thinking about the next day. I just figure we should try and think ahead at what we could do to eliminate the pack after we diminish it tonight. Just so we can be prepared and we don’t have to play it by ear.”

“We need to take this one step at a time, though,” Rendwick reminded him. “Keep our focus on diminishing the pack for now, then eliminating the rest of the pack afterwards, then dealing with the girl from District 12, and then we can focus on the Gamemakers. If you keep most of your focus on the Gamemakers or what might happen tomorrow, it’ll distract you from what’s going on right now.”

Lartius leaned his head back. “I forgot about the girl from Twelve.”

“Hey, I mean it,” Rendwick said seriously. “Diminishing the pack is top priority tonight, okay?”

“I know, I know,” Lartius replied. “It’s just hard not to think about it, you know?”

“Yeah, I get it. I’ve pushed it out of my mind often enough today.”

“Are you trying to think ahead to what the Gamemakers can do?”

Rendwick let out a half sigh. “Sometimes. The rest of the time I’m just wanting everything to be over, just so we don’t have to worry about this ever again.”

Lartius felt pulse of pleasure around his heart at Rendwick’s use of the word “we”. A small smile tugged at his lips.

Rendwick bit off part of his bird’s wing. “But I know that whenever you’re silent for a while when we’re in here,” he gestured around the hideout,” that you’re thinking about the plan.”

Lartius laughed a little. “You know me that well already?”

Rendwick shrugged. “You’ve gotten to know me pretty well, too. The past few days, when I was stuck inside my head, worrying about how only one of us might get through this alive, and you asked me what was wrong, you knew I was lying when I said it was nothing.”

Lartius nodded. “True.” He drank from his canteen.

“That’s what happens when two people hide out in a secret room for about a week,” Rendwick said. “They get to know each other better than they expected.”

“Yeah, but I doubt it happens exactly like it did for us,” Lartius replied, grinning.

Rendwick laughed. “Yeah, I don’t think so either.”

Lartius deposited an empty bone next to him on the floor. “You know, I don’t think this has ever happened before.”

“What?” Rendwick asked.

“Two people, you know, in the Games…” Lartius’ voice trailed off.

Rendwick nodded. “Yeah, I don’t remember this happening before either.”

“Everyone goes through the Games differently,” Lartius said. He took another bite of his bird. “The high-district tributes, for the most part, are really determined to win no matter what. The lower-district tributes are-” He paused to think.

“Probably scared,” Rendwick finished. He put a few empty bones on the floor. “They’re terrified to be in this position and just want to go home, but don’t know if they’ll be able to.”

Lartius nodded slowly, his lips pressed together. He didn’t say anything. He put another empty bone in his own pile.

Rendwick couldn’t really help it, but he thought of the girl from Twelve. He vaguely remembered she’d scored pretty high in her training session (an eight or something) and she’d managed to survive this far, though he had no idea how. Unlike the other high-district tributes, she wasn’t hunting them down with the intent to kill (she probably wasn’t hunting anyone). No one from Twelve had ever won the Games before (no one that Rendwick could remember off the top of his head, anyway). He wished they didn’t have to kill her.

Lartius couldn’t really think of anything else to say. He knew Rendwick was thinking about the lower-district tributes (possibly the girl from Twelve). He let Rendwick get lost in his thoughts for a while as they finished eating. When Lartius dropped his last bone on the floor, he wiped his hands on his pants and looked over at the panel. He couldn’t quite tell from inside how late it was getting. He got up and opened the panel a crack to look outside.

“What is it?” Rendwick asked.

“The sun’s starting to set,” Lartius said. “We should get going.”

Lartius pushed the panel back into the frame and went to his backpack. He double-checked the parachute, making sure the metal container was closed all the way, shutting it in the metal case, and clipping the parachute on top. He swung his backpack over his shoulders.

Rendwick opened the panel and stepped out a little to get a feel of the weather. It was getting colder out with the sun setting, just like he knew it would. He went back inside and put his jacket on under his backpack.

“Ready?” Rendwick asked, picking up his spear.

Lartius had tucked the parachute into his backpack and zipped it shut. “Ready. Let’s go.”

Rendwick pulled back the panel and the two of them stepped outside. Rendwick pulled the panel shut and glanced up at the sky.

“The sun’s not completely set yet,” Lartius said. “We can probably walk around until it does.”

Rendwick nodded. They walked to the left, towards Avenue G, thinking it would be safer to be out of earshot of the high-district tributes for now.

“We could’ve stayed in a little longer,” Rendwick said.

“Yeah, but it’s not like it’s sweltering hot anymore,” Lartius said back. “It’s cooler out. And plus, I needed some air.”

Rendwick smiled a little.

“Do you think we’ve really been in this arena for a week?” Lartius asked.

“Yeah, I think so.” Rendwick cracked his neck a little back and forth. “There was the bloodbath, then the next day three people died, then two people, then one person,” he counted off on his fingers, “then we had three days without deaths, and then there’s today. That’s eight days.”

“Jeez.”

“And we found each other in the arena on day two.”

“You mean I found you,” Lartius corrected. “You barely left that place, and you said you wouldn’t if you had your way.”

“It was all part of my plan,” Rendwick joked. “You had to come to me.”

Lartius laughed. Rendwick’s instinct told him to reach for his shoulder, but he pushed it aside. They’d gotten so used to just being themselves in the hideout, they had certain impulses to fight on occasion in front of the cameras.

They kept walking to the west side until they reached Avenue M and began walking uptown to 23rd Street. The sky was getting dark fairly quickly. Lartius kept looking up at it, but since it wasn’t dark enough yet, he didn’t feel the need to rush to the park. It would be dark enough by the time they got there.

Once they reached 23rd Street, they walked back to the east side towards Avenue E, where the park was. Rendwick felt a cool breeze along his face and smiled a little. It was refreshing after the drought. Just then, Rendwick felt Lartius take his wrist and pull him back a little.

“What?” Rendwick whispered.

“Listen.” Lartius jerked his head towards the street.

“We’ll find them, they have to be here somewhere,” came Alto’s irritated voice. “Just calm down.”

“It’s been days!” Phox yelled. “Days! Of course they’re here somewhere but this arena is huge! Where the hell can they be?”

“You’re not the only one who wants to find them,” Alto shot back. “Eunia wants the guy from Two, and I want revenge on Fannia. We’re gonna find them, okay?”

“How? We haven’t see them since the bloodbath!” There was a loud clink from the park, like Phox had hit one of the buildings with the back of his axe. “And you know, since they’re some of the last ones left in the arena, I bet one of them took my spear!”

“Shut up! Seriously! We’ll find them, you’ll get your spear back, and you’ll be able to give the viewers a good show, just like you said.”

Rendwick felt his stomach churn at those words.

“That better be soon, though.”

“I swear to God, if you don’t stop bitching like a little girl, you’re not gonna get to put on that show for everyone.”

“Try me,” Phox challenged. “I dare you.”

Alto was silent after that. The two of them walked past Lartius and Rendwick on the roof, and continued to the west side.

“They’re getting on each other’s nerves now,” Lartius said.

Rendwick nodded. “Yep.”

“Maybe they’ll keep fighting long enough for one of them to kill the other one out of anger and lost patience.”

“Yeah, then we won’t have to deal with them.”

They kept walking towards the east side. Rendwick glanced back a couple times to make sure Phox and Alto weren’t doubling back, but they just walked further and further away.

Lartius’ stomach jumped with excitement when he saw a dull orange glow coming from Avenue E. “Finally,” he said, quickening his pace in anticipation. Rendwick walked a little faster to keep up with him, looking behind him one more time to make sure they hadn’t been spotted. They stopped on one of the buildings on Avenue G, right in front of their makeshift tent.

“Do you need the night vision glasses?” Rendwick asked in a low voice.

Lartius shook his head. “No, I can see fine.” There was a fire lit, just outside the tent, but it gave Lartius a pretty good view of everything down there. He could see Eunia and Volumnia’s outlines through the stretched blankets.

“Are you sure that’s them?” Rendwick asked. “Maybe it’s just the girl from Twelve.”

“Lighting a fire in the middle of the night?” Lartius asked, laughing a little. “I think she knows better than that. Plus look, you can see two shadows under the tent.”

Rendwick looked a little closer and nodded in comprehension. Lartius swung his backpack around and took out the parachute. He gently untangled the strings to keep them straight. It was a pretty long throw to get it to their tent, but he felt he could manage.

His hand flexed around the metal case, once, twice, three times. He threw it as hard as he could. The parachute burst open and Lartius heard the faint beeping noise and saw the flashing light on top of it. The parachute floated down to the edge of the makeshift tent and rolled a little towards the middle. Lartius saw one of the girls move from under the tent, and stepped back quickly, taking Rendwick with him by his arm so they’d be hidden from the girls.

The two of them waited for a while, to give them time to open the parachute and discover what was inside. Finally, a cannon fired. Pause. Then another cannon. Lartius sighed with relief and accomplishment. He felt his anticipation and nerves vanish. They diminished the pack, from four people to two.

Lartius immediately let go of Rendwick’s arm and went for the fire escape to retrieve the parachute. Rendwick was about to follow him when he heard urgent voices and quick footsteps and looked to his left. Phox and Alto had heard the cannons and were racing back to the park.

“Let’s go,” Rendwick said, gripping Lartius’ arm.

“Now?”

“By the time they think someone might be nearby, we’ll be gone,” Rendwick said urgently. “Come on.”

Lartius looked down at the park, thinking of the parachute. But the footsteps were getting closer, so he just followed Rendwick away from the park, back to 15th Street.

Rendwick walked a little fast so they would be gone before Phox and Alto could start looking for them. Lartius could hear them yelling in the park, all the way down from 16th Street. He knew they had figured out what happened to Eunia and Volumnia and were pissed.

“Well, on the bright side, we diminished the pack,” Rendwick said.

“Yeah, but on the down side, we lost the parachute,” Lartius replied. He scuffed his shoe on the rooftop. “And they probably know what happened to them.”

“Yup.”

“Maybe we’ll get another parachute from a sponsor that we could use instead.”

“Nah, they’d see right through it,” Rendwick said. “They’d know it’s nightlock. But that wasn’t really the point of the parachute, was it? I thought you were just using it to diminish the pack.”

“Yeah, I know,” Lartius said, tilting his head back a little, “but part of me was kind of hoping it could take out all four of them at once.”

Rendwick nodded.

“And you know, if we do get another parachute, we can use it on the girl from Twelve,” Lartius added.

The two of them jumped down to the fire escape and went back inside the hideout. Rendwick propped his spear against the wall and Lartius opened his backpack to get his flashlight, since night had fallen and they couldn’t see much. He turned it on, dropped his backpack next to his blanket, and propped the flashlight up against it. He saw his canteen on the ground, which he realized at that instant he’d forgotten to put away. He picked it up, took a drink from it, then put it away in his backpack before straightening up again.

Lartius’ mind was still out in the arena, hoping that either Phox or Alto were dumb enough to eat the nightlock anyway. His ears were on high alert for a third and possibly fourth cannon.

“Hey,” Rendwick said gently in Lartius’ ear, wrapping his arms around him. “Relax. So what if they figured it out? We’ll find another way to take them down.” He kissed Lartius’ temple. Lartius smiled a little to himself.

Their relationship had become closer and more intimate over the last several days. Lartius noticed that his feelings for Rendwick had grown substantially. It was very intense, unlike anything he’d ever felt before. Given how time seemed to slow down in the hideout, things progressed rather quickly between them.

Lartius was reluctant to call it love. He didn’t have anything to compare his relationship with Rendwick to, but he didn’t think love happened in a matter of days. He thought it took longer than that. But still, his feelings for Rendwick had become so strong, he didn’t know what else to call it. He was about to ask Rendwick for his opinion on that, but he heard the anthem start to play from outside.

Rendwick let go of Lartius and they went back out onto the fire escape. The two of them watched the Capitol seal vanish and Eunia and Volumnia’s faces flash up in the artificial sky, confirming to Lartius and Rendwick what they both already knew. When the sky went dark again, they went back inside.

Wordlessly, they went for their blankets. They’d had a pretty crazy day and were in need of some simplicity. Or at least just a break. Sleeping was usually the only way someone could get a break in the Games. They just had to find a safe place to do it. Once they were comfortable, Lartius reached up to his backpack to turn off the flashlight, but Rendwick caught his hand.

“Not yet,” Rendwick said.

Lartius lowered his hand. Rendwick wound his arm around Lartius and brought him in a little closer. Lartius understood why Rendwick wanted to keep the flashlight on. He was just initiating another silent moment of eye contact, and they wouldn’t have been able to do that with the light off.

Rendwick’s hand trailed up and down Lartius’ forearm. Lartius realized at that moment that neither of them talked about exactly what they had with each other. He knew they had some kind of relationship, but given how inexperienced they were in relationships and how things had moved so fast in such a short time, he didn’t really know what it was.

“Can I ask you something?” Lartius asked.

“Mm-hmm.” Rendwick nodded.

“What is this? What he have? We’ve never really talked about it.”

Rendwick’s hand stopped at Lartius’ shoulder for a little bit, then moved up to his jaw. “I don’t know, honestly. I’m not sure if what he have has a name or something. I think maybe ‘together’ is a good start.”

Lartius smiled a little. They were together. He liked it.

“But I actually don’t care that much.” Rendwick’s thumb stroked Lartius’ jawline, back and forth. “Because I’m just… really happy.”

Rendwick could see Lartius’ eyes sparkle as he smiled even wider. Lartius’ arm went around Rendwick’s waist. At that instant like a sudden jolt, it finally came to him.

Rendwick abruptly sat up. “I figured it out.”

“Figured what out?” Lartius asked. He sat up, too.

"You said before that you thought all of this happened for a reason," Rendwick said. “Us getting picked for the Games and then getting together.”

Lartius nodded. “Yeah.”

"Maybe this is the reason. Maybe the reason is that we’re both gonna come out of this alive."

Lartius could see an eagerly hopeful gleam in Rendwick’s eye. “Well, I like your optimism but how can you be so sure we’re both gonna survive this? How do you know we’re gonna make it?”

“We are gonna make it.” Rendwick reached one hand up to Lartius’ face. “We are. I don’t know how, but we are. I can feel it.”

His hand moved to the back of Lartius’ head. He pulled him in closer and kissed him very slowly. Lartius’ eyes shut and his arms wrapped around Rendwick’s neck, holding him tightly. The hand on the back of Lartius’ head moved down to around his shoulder blade, while Rendwick’s other arm wrapped around his waist. Their heads titled a little as they kissed even deeper, their chests pressed flat against each other’s, their bodies curving into each other’s, their arms tightly wound around each other’s backs. Rendwick couldn’t tell where he began and Lartius ended. They just kept going deeper, but not faster. It wasn’t really about that. Time felt like it had slowed down even more, so speed wasn’t an issue.

Rendwick pulled away a little but he was close enough for their foreheads to touch. Feeling their arms so tightly around each other and seeing the look in Lartius’ eyes, Rendwick felt a thrill around his heart as volts of electricity shot up and down his arms and legs. At that moment, Rendwick knew. He loved him.

He wanted to tell Lartius right away. He wanted him to know. But before he could even open his mouth, a burst of light permeated through the panel and filled the room, brighter than when the sun rose in the morning. It was as if a light switch had been turned on outside.

Lartius stared at the panel, confused, then looked at Rendwick. The two of them let go of each other, got up, and carefully opened the panel to investigate the source of the sudden light. They found it instantly: the streetlight right outside the building had turned on. A few others downtown had turned on, too, each emitting an extremely bright white light. Squinting, Rendwick moved onto the rooftop, looked around the arena, and saw that the rest of the streetlights were lighting up one by one.

“I thought these streetlights were never turned on,” Rendwick said.

“They weren’t,” Lartius replied.

DISTRICT 1 Phox Baxwoll Volumnia Roxen
DISTRICT 2 Lartius Rankine Eunia Allardyce
DISTRICT 3 Alto Whishart Fannia Lapworth
DISTRICT 4 Rendwick Combe Nitya Flamsteed
DISTRICT 5 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 6 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 7 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 8 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 9 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 10 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 11 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 12 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE

The Mutt

Lartius felt his heart pounding way up in his throat. Eunia and Volumnia had died that night, so he suspected that would be the only action until morning. He felt a sense of uneasiness at the streetlights turning on. The Gamemakers were planning something.

“Do you think they’re all turning on?” Rendwick asked.

“Probably,” Lartius answered. “Why?”

“Get up here,” Rendwick said, gesturing up the steps of the fire escape. Lartius climbed up the fire escape. “Look, the streetlight over there is on,” he pointed, “but the one a block south isn’t.”

“I guess there’s only one way to tell if all of them are turned on.” Lartius looked over at the tallest building.

“What do you expect to find out from up there?” Rendwick asked.

“I don’t know,” Lartius replied. “I know that something’s gonna happen soon. Maybe we’ll get an idea of what it is.”

Rendwick nodded. He climbed down the fire escape and went back into the hideout. Lartius followed him, a little confused.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Rendwick was putting on his backpack. “Well, I’m not gonna go up there unarmed. And if we’re going to cross the wire to get to the tallest building, I still need to keep my spear somehow.”

Lartius thought back to when he took Rendwick up there the first time and nodded. Rendwick took his spear, pulled the panel shut, and the two of them stepped onto the roof and headed uptown. Lartius followed him. Rendwick saw the trees from the park on 23rd Street and quickly moved left towards 11th Avenue. Rendwick figured if the lights were bright enough to shine through the panel in the window, they had disrupted Phox and Alto in the park as well. They were probably up and walking, wondering what was going on, just like he and Lartius were.

They took a right when they reached 11th Avenue, walking uptown towards 80th Street, right where the wire was. It was a very long walk, so they decided to make it quick and not dawdle. As they walked, Lartius saw how slowly all the streetlights were turning on. He noticed, like Rendwick had, that not all of them were being turned on. He looked around at all the streetlights, trying to see if he could distinguish a pattern. He thought that some of them were lighting up in diagonal lines, but others seemed to be curving into wide semicircles. He’d get a better look from the roof of the tallest building.

Lartius felt his nerves climb up his throat and swallowed hard. “Do you have a bad feeling about this?” he asked Rendwick in a low voice.

Rendwick nodded. “Yeah. I assumed with Eunia and Volumnia gone that’d be it for the day.”

“Mhm, me too.”

“What do expect to find out from the roof of the building again?” Rendwick asked.

“Well, I think I’m noticing a pattern in how the streetlights are lit. I saw some that were in diagonal lines and others that looked like they were curved. I have no idea what the whole thing looks like.”

“You think there’s some kind of significance to this pattern?”

“There might be. I mean, the Gamemakers never do things for no reason. There has to be some meaning behind it.”

Rendwick nodded. “It seems kind of early for them to be doing things at night though, isn’t it?” he asked, thinking back to past Games. “Usually they wait until there are fewer tributes, two or three.”

“Yeah, either that or they wait an extra few days. The Games tend to last longer than this, but I kind of feel like they’re trying to speed things up already. We’re only eight days in.”

“How long do the Games usually last?” Rendwick asked. “About two weeks, right?”

Lartius nodded in reply. “That’s what the head trainer at the Training Center said.” He shoved his fists in his pockets.

Rendwick could tell he was getting a little more nervous. Lartius could sort of map out how these Games would go based on his knowledge of past Games, and he’d worked their deal and their plan to evade the Gamemakers to the very end into that. But whatever this was could throw a wrench into their plans. Rendwick wanted to tell Lartius to calm down and put it out of his mind for now, but with the way he usually got him to calm down, that would have to wait until they got back to the hideout.

Rendwick couldn’t blame Lartius for thinking ahead right now, since he began to do the same. His dad had always said, “We, as humans, fear the unknown.” Rendwick racked his brains, trying to think of what the Gamemakers could have planned now. He thought back to the conversation he and Lartius had had about natural disasters. He thought of blizzards, heavy rain, hail, powerful gusting winds, hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. He knew that the Gamemakers always wanted to preserve the arenas every year, but he kept wondering if the Gamemakers would be able to regulate something like a hurricane to ensure it didn’t destroy the arena.

But with the lights turning on, the idea of a natural disaster in the arena seemed unlikely. It didn’t make sense to turn on some of the streetlights just to have them go out again when the natural disaster hit. And since Lartius said the Gamemakers didn’t do anything with no reason, it didn’t fit. Lights turning on had nothing to do with a possible hurricane, thunderstorm, earthquake, or anything like that.

Rendwick knew that whatever it was they were planning, he and Lartius would have to get past it and, if necessary, rearrange their plan to make it work. They didn’t have a plan B for both of them to make it to the end, so they had to cling onto plan A for dear life, literally.

By the time they’d reached 78th Street, they were actually three blocks ahead of all the lights. It was still nighttime in the arena so it got a little harder to see. Rendwick wasn’t so comfortable crossing the wire in the dark. He thought of using his night vision glasses so he could see, but they’d left the flashlight back at the hideout, so he didn’t know what Lartius would do.

Lartius saw the wire strung across the buildings and began to walk faster. He rubbed his palms together, reminding Rendwick of when he first did the rings course in the Training Center.

“Can you see okay?” Rendwick asked Lartius.

“Yeah,” Lartius replied, nodding. The streetlights behind him were bright enough, and he knew it would get brighter in the arena with time.

“Are you sure?” Rendwick asked, taking out his night vision shades from the side pocket of his backpack.

Lartius nodded. “Mhm, I’m good.” He jumped up and caught onto the rings, moving swiftly towards the other side.

Rendwick put on his night vision shades, swung his backpack around to his chest, and strapped his spear to the front of it. With both straps on his shoulders, Rendwick reached up for the rings and began to cross the wire.

He and Lartius were moving fairly quickly. Rendwick wanted to get this over with. He knew that whatever was about to happen wasn’t going to be good. Lartius wanted to figure out what they were dealing with now, so they could come up with a plan to deal with it or get past it, whatever it was. They both had to make it to the very end alive if their big plan was going to work.

Before Lartius made it halfway down the wire, he noticed the streetlights were lighting up faster. He quickened his pace but made sure he kept his breathing even so he wouldn’t tire himself out. Given how quickly the streetlights were turning on now, Lartius was starting to wonder if whatever the Gamemakers had planned for tonight was aimed specifically at him or Rendwick, or if it was just to get everyone moving because it had been so quiet the last four days. But given how bright the lights were, it would be hard to ignore them, so everyone in the arena would be up and moving. He did wonder whose bright idea it was to do this in at night, though. Lartius reached the other side of the wire and landed safely on the roof.

The lights had almost caught up to Rendwick now. He could see it from his peripheral vision. He felt like he was being chased. He quickened his pace, too. The bright lights were getting distracting with his shades on. They were made to see in the dark, not to shield light, so he found himself squinting the rest of the way there. Then, about six rings away from the building, his right hand slipped off.

Lartius’ heart froze and he jumped in alarm, his eyes wide. Rendwick felt his own heart drop and his insides turn to stone. He quickly reached for the ring again and grasped it firmly, careful not to touch the underside of the wire.

“I’m okay,” Rendwick said, breathlessly. “I’m okay.” He took a deep breath and willed himself not to look down.

Lartius was breathing a little fast. He didn’t fully relax until Rendwick reached the building and landed safely on the roof. Lartius let out a heavy breath as Rendwick took off the night vision shades and put them away.

“That was…” Rendwick began, still breathing a little heavily.

“Yeah,” Lartius agreed, nodding.

He and Rendwick looked at each other for a while, as if they were silently telling each other they were okay. Then, they went to the ladder and climbed up to the roof of the tallest building.

Rendwick and Lartius took in the arena. Rendwick went straight for the highest part of the roof. Lartius’ eyes scanned around, looking from streetlight to streetlight, and the pattern they formed. The combination of diagonal lines and wide semi-circles made sense to him when he looked at the whole picture from above.

“Do you see what I see?” Rendwick asked.

“It looks like,” Lartius said slowly as he looked around, “a giant spider web.”

Rendwick nodded. He felt his stomach tie itself into knots. The uneasiness in his throat grew. But before he could even picture what was going to happen next, the building began to shake under their feet. Alarmed, he and Lartius looked at each other.

“An earthquake?” Rendwick asked.

“No idea.”

Rendwick looked around at the ground below them, then froze when he looked directly down. “Oh God.”

“What?” Lartius joined him at the edge of the roof and looked down.

A giant milky white spider with orange stripes was crawling up the side of the building. Its eight legs moved so fast and erratically that it made the whole building shake.

Lartius took Rendwick by the elbow. They looked at each other for a split second, turned on their heels, and ran. They jumped down to the lower section of the roof, and Lartius went directly towards the wire.

“Don’t go for the rings!” Rendwick yelled, pulling him by the arm.

“Why?”

“Too risky! Just take the long way! We’ll have a better chance of getting back to the hideout in one piece!” Rendwick dragged him to the right.

They had no time to debate it. Lartius followed him as they ran from rooftop to rooftop down 12th Avenue. They felt the buildings shake as they ran, and broke into a sprint. Every time the spider traveled from one building to the next, it made a loud noise between a crash and a boom, causing Rendwick to simultaneously jump and brace himself each time. Rendwick didn’t dare look behind him to see how closely the spider was chasing them. He focused on getting to the hideout. Once they got there and were inside, they would be safe from the spider and could think of a plan. Right now, their priority was getting to the hideout.

Lartius thought it was taking much longer to reach 15th Street than it should be. It was a strange and horrifying change, given how time passed very quickly outside the hideout the past several days. This was a bad time for everything to slow down. He felt a sense of panic rise up in his throat, but he swallowed hard, willing himself to keep it together. We’re going to make it, he thought to himself, as they got closer to 15th Street. We have to make it.

They finally reached 15th Street and took a left, racing to Avenue F. Rendwick could sense the spider still behind them. He heard another loud crashing boom behind him. They ran past Avenue Z, and began to sprint harder. Rendwick could see the corner of 15th and Avenue F in the distance. He bit down on his lip.

They passed Avenue P. Lartius stopped trying to block out the crashing booms from behind him. Half of his mind was focused on getting to the hideout, but the other half was thinking about how insane it was to release a giant muttation spider into the arena. He thought back to the muttations from past Hunger Games, variations of mountain lions, bears, tigers, birds of prey, and even poisonous stinging fish. There had never been a mutt so out of the box as this one. He felt like it didn’t fit, as though the Gamemakers had trouble coming up with something deadlier than the squirrels in the park, so they just decided to go with this.

They passed Avenue J. Rendwick’s breath was tearing painfully at his lungs. He felt his heart pounding so hard he thought it would burst. They were so close to their hideout, they just had to get inside and they would be okay.

They finally reached Avenue F, jumped down to the fire escape, pushed the panel open, and went inside, quickly pushing it shut. They put their weight on it, bracing for impact in case the spider would try to penetrate it, but nothing happened. Both panting, they waited for a few seconds before Lartius let go of the panel. The building was still shaking, so he leaned against the wall instead.

Rendwick leaned his forearm against the panel, still panting heavily. “They’re insane!” he wheezed. “The Gamemakers are insane!”

Lartius was too out of breath to reply. Rendwick tasted something bitter and coppery in his mouth and realized he’d bitten clean through his lip. Then, the building began to shake more violently. Lartius held onto the wall. The two of them looked at the wall opposite from the window, where they could sense the weight of the spider. They felt it climb up to the roof again before a loud, high-pitched scream rang through the air in the arena. The shaking doubled as they felt the spider crawl down the side of the building. Once the building was completely still again, they heard a cannon.

“The girl from Twelve?” Lartius asked Rendwick.

“Must be,” he replied. “She’s the only girl left.”

Lartius opened the panel and stepped out onto the fire escape. He climbed up to the roof. “Jesus.”

“What?” Rendwick shed his backpack, freed his spear from the straps, and followed him up the fire escape. Lartius was staring at a limp figure a few feet away. The dead body of the girl from Twelve. It looked like there was something rising out of it. Rendwick stepped closer. Lartius followed him cautiously.

“It looks like her body…” he kneeled down in front of it, “is smoking.”

“What?” Lartius asked, bewildered.

“Look at the wounds,” Rendwick said, pointing to her neck.

Lartius crouched down for a closer look. The edges of the wounds were coated with some kind of sludgy liquid that was smoking slightly.

“The spider’s venom is acidic,” Lartius said.

“That thing is really dangerous,” Rendwick said, straightening up. He glanced around the arena and found the spider heading towards the Cornucopia. He felt Lartius tug at his sleeve. He looked at him and followed him back into the hideout.

“Okay,” Lartius said, as they pushed the panel back into the frame. “Okay. Okay.” He leaned his back against the chipped wall.

Adrenaline was still buzzing in Rendwick’s veins. “We need a plan,” he said, sucking on his lower lip a little.

Lartius looked at him. “What for?”

“We can’t have that thing running around in the arena,” Rendwick said. “If we’re going to try and evade the Gamemakers once we’re the only two left, they’re going to use it against us. They could use that plus some other kind of Gamemaker-engineered weapon. They could make it stronger.”

“It’s from the Capitol! It’s incredibly powerful! What are we supposed to do?” Lartius asked.

Rendwick didn’t have an answer. How were they supposed to outlast a giant mutt spider? He looked around helplessly, hoping he’d get an idea from something. He then realized he was still holding his spear. Slowly, he looked at it.

Lartius’ eyes widened. “No,” he said instantly, shaking his head.

“Maybe I can try to at least wound it so it can die on its own,” Rendwick said, gripping his spear a little tighter.

“Are you crazy?” Lartius said. “That thing is huge! How can you even think about trying to take it down?”

“I don’t know but I have to try.” He headed for the window.

“No!” Lartius grabbed Rendwick by his arm. “I’m not letting you do this!”

“I have to try!” Rendwick repeated. “It’s not safe to have that thing in the arena, even if we stay hidden! It already killed the girl from Twelve! At least if it’s wounded, it’ll die eventually.”

Lartius bit the inside of his cheek. “All right. I’m coming with you.”

“No way,” Rendwick said instantly.

“Rendwick-”

“Not a chance in hell,” Rendwick said firmly.

“I’m not letting you go alone! I might not be able to do as much as you because you have a spear, but you can’t face that thing by yourself!”

“You’re not coming!”

“Why not?”

“Because I can’t lose you!” Rendwick yelled, dropping his spear and taking Lartius by his shoulders. “If we fought that thing together and it did something to you, I would never forgive myself! I’m supposed to protect you, we made a deal!”

“How do you think I feel?” Lartius yelled back. “This is what we were talking about before, the Gamemakers want to separate us! We said we wouldn’t leave each other’s side!”

“That was for after Phox and Alto were dead, though!” Rendwick countered. “I’d say that Phox and Alto are bigger problems, we can’t try to deal with them and the Gamemakers at the same time, it’s too much!”

“I know, I know! We have to go at it one step at a time, first the spider, then Phox and Alto, then the Gamemakers! But we’re in this together!”

“All the more reason-!” Rendwick stopped yelling. He took a deep breath. “All the more reason why I want you to stay behind,” he said seriously. “I have to keep you safe. Please.”

“So what, am I supposed to just watch helplessly from the sidelines?”

“Keeping you alive is my number one priority.” Rendwick’s hand moved up to Lartius’ face. “I’m doing this, and I’ll try to be as quick as I can.”

Lartius knew he was fighting a losing battle over this. Rendwick reached to the back of Lartius’ head and pulled him into a kiss. Lartius gripped him by the shoulders. Rendwick broke the kiss and hugged Lartius tightly, his hand still on the back of Lartius’ head.

“I’ll be back,” Rendwick said, pulling back so he could look at Lartius. “I promise.”

Lartius reached up to the back of Rendwick’s head and pulled him in so their foreheads touched. Rendwick’s hand trailed down to Lartius’ shoulder before he bent down to pick up his spear and headed out the window, closing the panel behind him.

Lartius was breathing heavily. He rested his forearm on the panel and shut his eyes. He just wanted this to be over so he could wrap his arms around Rendwick and whisper in his ear that he’d never been so scared in his life.

Rendwick’s hands were shaking as he climbed down the fire escape. He knew he was crazy to do this. Every one of his “big plans” in the arena were like that, down to stealing the spear from Phox in the middle of the night on his first day in the arena. He knew he was crazy to not only come up with, but intend to go through with, the deal with Lartius to evade the Gamemakers so they both survived. That was it. He was doing all of this for Lartius. He wanted Lartius to survive.

He jumped down onto the sidewalk, hitched his spear up in his hand, and made his way down to the Cornucopia. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t scared. He was terrified. All he had against this giant monster was his spear. The spider had its acid venom. The odds were not in Rendwick’s favor. He forced himself to breathe evenly. He needed something to get him energized, so he broke into a run. He would have to rely on his adrenaline to get himself through this.

Rendwick watched the spider travel a little past the Cornucopia as he passed 10th Street. He knew the fight was going to be messy. He was probably going to get thrown around a lot. He remembered the tips he learned from his hand-to-hand combat lessons at the Training Center back home: Don’t fall backwards on your palms with your arms straightened out, or you’ll hyperextend your elbows. Fall on your forearms. If you land on your feet, always bend your knees to keep them from blowing out. Keep your chin to your chest when you fall backwards so your head doesn’t bang on the ground.

He knew what he was getting himself into. It was a mutt from the Capitol. But he wasn’t trying to kill it. He just wanted to injure it enough so it could die on its own. The problem was he didn’t know how much he needed to wound it to ensure it would die eventually. Given how huge it was and that it was made by the Gamemakers, it would take a lot to wound it the way he wanted to.

Rendwick passed 5th Street. He got a better idea of just how big the spider was the closer he got to it. He didn’t really get a good look at it when it was crawling up the side of the tallest building. It was a lot bigger than he thought it was. The spider’s body was longer than Rendwick was tall. It stood about two feet taller than Rendwick. Once he realized just how big it was, he felt fear mix with adrenaline. He forced himself to run faster, to eradicate the fear.

He began to form a plan. The spider’s body was only about four feet or so above the ground. He thought he might have a better shot at injuring it if he crouched underneath it and attacked from below. If he was able to keep attacking from beneath it, he might sufficiently wound it. He had to approach it in a way that the spider wouldn’t notice him. It was crawling towards the row of buildings to the left of the Cornucopia. He approached the spider from behind, hiking his spear up in his grasp again. It would be tough to attack without getting noticed, since he knew he would end up bumping into the spider from underneath it.

Rendwick first tried to slide underneath it so he was on the ground. He was able to get in between the spider’s legs to get in a good position underneath it. He sat down on the ground and was about to aim his spear when the spider started moving. He tried following the spider around, but it was tricky. He had to be careful not to knock his feet into the spider’s legs by accident. Rendwick didn’t even get a chance to get into position to strike.

He turned himself over on his hands and knees and tried that way. The top of his head barely grazed the spider when he was upright on his knees, so he didn’t think he would be noticed. Underneath the spider, he realized the spear was too tall so stabbing the spider would be tricky. He couldn’t stab directly upward, so he would have to stab from another angle. But he didn’t have much mobility sitting down or on his hands and knees. The spider was moving around too much. He needed to be on his feet.

Rendwick felt himself getting a little frustrated. He had to get this done. Maybe if he tried squatting underneath it. At least he’d be on his feet. But by that point, the spider could sense Rendwick underneath it. It began to move around very quickly, Rendwick struggled a little to keep up with it. Finally, the spider shook him off by climbing up the nearest building. Rendwick tried to strike with his spear but the spider moved too quickly.

The spider quickly made a U-turn and scrambled back down the building. Rendwick quickly bolted into the alley and ran up the fire escape, climbing up to the roof. The spider turned left and right, looking for Rendwick. Rendwick back up on the roof, took off running, and jumped. He landed, sprawled, on the spider’s abdomen. He frantically grabbed onto the spider to keep himself from falling off, one hand still holding onto his spear. The spider was moving quicker and quicker, trying to throw him off. The spider moved more violently, and Rendwick slid off, hitting the pavement hard. He skidded on the rough road, scraping up his arm and part of his face.

Rendwick scrambled to his feet and found himself face-to-face with the mutt. His heart began to pound faster. The spider’s pincers clicked viciously at him, Rendwick could see traces of the venom. It charged at Rendwick. He immediately slashed at the spider’s head with his spear. He felt the spear make contact and the spider recoiled. Rendwick went back for the alley, swinging his spear at each of the spider’s legs, knocking them behind him as he ran.

Rendwick went for the nearest fire escape and raced up to the roof. The spider scuttled around the road. It was going to be a longer jump from the roof than the first time. Rendwick backed up on the roof, hiding himself from view. He knew the spider knew he was on the roof so he had to move quickly. He quickly ran off the roof, jumped, and landed on the spider’s abdomen again. He held on tighter and managed to keep himself from falling off. He had landed dangerously close to the spider’s head. He did his best to steady himself as he rose to his feet. He turned his spear upside down and aimed for the spider’s head. However, the spider moved right before the spear made contact, causing Rendwick’s aim to shift. The spear plunged into one of the spider’s eyes. He yanked out his spear and saw thick, dark blood pour out of the wound. The spider let out a strangled squeal of pain and shook Rendwick off his head.

When Rendwick landed on the road again, he looked up at the spider’s bloody eye socket. He had an idea. He wouldn’t be able to sufficiently wound it if the spider could still see him. He would have to blind it. He quickly got to his feet, gripping his spear tightly. He had seven more eyes to get.

The spider charged straight at him. Rendwick took careful aim and stabbed another eye. The spider made another noise of pain and snapped at Rendwick with its pincers. He pulled out his spear and stabbed another eye, then another. The noises the spider was making were getting louder and louder. It snapped its pincers at Rendwick and tore off part of his jacket. Rendwick’s heart stopped when he realized just how alarmingly close he was to the spider and moved back a little.

The spider started closing in on him, and Rendwick kept stabbing its eyes. When he finally got the last one, the pain seemed to be driving the spider insane. Rendwick saw more venom in its pincers as it blindly charged at him. Rendwick moved quickly, ducking and dodging, running to his left and heading up the fire escape of the building.

Rendwick was out of breath. He couldn’t believe he was doing so well with this. He managed to blind a giant mutt spider and all that the spider managed to get was his jacket. But Rendwick knew he needed a better approach to this. If he attacked from above, he could stab the spider when he landed on top of it.

Still panting, Rendwick bent over, his hands on his knees. He needed time to catch his breath, but he knew he had to move quickly before the spider moved further away from the building. Rendwick straightened up, still trying to regulate his breathing. He turned his spear upside down so the blade was close to the ground.

He’d waited too long. The spider had figured out where Rendwick was and was on his tail. Rendwick ran and jumped to the nearest roof. He wasn’t sure if the spider could hear him run (did spiders have ears?) or if it felt the vibrations of his feet. He needed to find a way to shake off the spider.

He knew he had to be faster than the spider in order to lose it. The spider was tailing him closely; it knew where Rendwick was, even if it couldn’t see him. Rendwick zigzagged as he ran across the rooftops and sensed the spider following his path. He still couldn’t tell if the spider was following the sound or the vibrations of his footsteps, and he didn’t really have a way to figure it out.

Rendwick was starting to get tired. He hadn’t slept at all tonight, he was running on adrenaline and determination, and he had no idea how long he’d been going at it with the spider. Don’t you dare stop, he told himself. You just need a few good stabs and then you can leave it. Three stabs in its head, at the very least. He thought back to the several times he and Lartius talked about their perception of time in the arena. He wondered if the viewers were staying up late to watch this, or if this was being broadcasted during the day, and the Gamemakers had manipulated time in the arena to keep the tributes on a specific schedule.

Rendwick traveled uptown, heading towards 5th Street. He needed a way to throw the spider off. He saw the upcoming gap before the next roof. He saw the dark metal ladder leading down and knew there was a fire escape there. He wouldn’t be able to climb down, since it made too much noise and the spider would be able to feel it. He wondered if he could jump down and hang off of one of the railings.

The gap was getting closer. Rendwick took a deep breath and jumped. He grabbed onto the rail at the second floor from the top and managed to hang on. He held onto the rail one-handed, since his other hand was carrying his spear. His body collided painfully and loudly with the metal bars of the fire escape. There was no way the spider didn’t hear that. He looked down at the ground below him and realized what a long drop it was. He willed himself not to let go of the rail.

Rendwick watched the spider travel over his head to the next rooftop. It didn’t seem like the spider noticed that Rendwick had changed direction. Once it made it all the way there, Rendwick swung his legs around and dropped down to the next level of the fire escape. He sat down, panting a little. He could probably hide in the fire escape for a while to catch his breath, since the spider was to big too get him from outside the fire escape.

Rendwick could hear that the spider had stopped moving on the next building. If the spider didn’t hear him on the fire escape, it was possible the spider couldn’t hear at all, and it was following Rendwick’s vibrations. Rendwick banged the handle of his spear on the metal rail, but the spider didn’t react. Given that the fire escape he was on was one building over, the spider didn’t feel it either.

Rendwick finally allowed himself to catch his breath. He heard scuttling from the roof but didn’t check out what was going on up there. He needed to refocus himself. Catch your breath then go for it, he thought to himself. The trick would be getting the spider off the building and back down into the road.

Chances are he was going to have to wait for that to happen. He couldn’t let the spider chase him again, or Rendwick would never get the chance to wound it. Three stabs, he told himself again. Thinking back to how big the spider was, Rendwick suspected he would need to drive the spear as far into its head as he could each time to cause as much damage as possible. Hopefully that would be enough.

Rendwick thought of Lartius, back at the hideout. He knew Lartius was scared and he understood why Lartius wanted to come with him. In Lartius’ mind, their deal started when they shook hands. That’s why he wanted to be prepared and start thinking ahead to how they were going to evade the Gamemakers. But he realized that he had a similar mindset about the deal, which was why he wanted Lartius to stay behind. He didn’t know what Lartius was doing in the hideout, whether he was inside the hideout unable to watch, or out on the fire escape, ready to go down if it looked like Rendwick was in trouble. He really hoped Lartius would stay there until it was over.

Rendwick looked up at the roof. There was still no movement up there. There hadn’t been for a while. He could feel his eyes start to droop, so he stood up. If he moved around, he could keep himself awake. He needed more adrenaline to get him through this. He craned his neck to see what was going on up on the roof, but saw, out of the corner of his eye, that the spider was crawling down the side of the building. He had to do this now.

Rendwick climbed back onto the roof and followed the spider uptown. It was crawling a little haphazardly because it couldn’t see anymore, and it couldn’t feel any other vibrations since it wasn’t chasing anyone. He couldn’t let it get too far. He needed a way to stop it, at least for a little while. The roof on 6th Street had small stones all over it. Rendwick approached the edge of the rooftop. He picked up a handful of stones and threw them hard at the spider. It froze, then scuttled around madly, trying to figure out where they came from. Rendwick picked up another handful and dropped them on the sidewalk below him. The spider came charging in that direction. Rendwick took his chance. He didn’t need to run, he just had to wait until it got close enough. Finally, he jumped down, landed on the spider, gripped his spear with both hands, and plunged the blade of his spear into the spider’s abdomen.

He pierced its body, below its head. The spider let out a horrible, guttural shrieking noise. He held on tight to his spear until he found his balance. The pain was too much for the spider to keep moving. Rendwick was able to balance himself on the spider’s abdomen. He managed to get in a few more stabs right into its head before the spider started to writhe violently and threw him off again.

He fell backwards, landing harder on the concrete. He winced horribly as he felt a very sharp pain around his chest. The shock of the fall caused him to drop his spear. It rolled away near the alley between two buildings. Frozen on the ground, he watched as the spider swayed, then fell down, shaking the ground. It rolled over onto its back, with it legs curled up in the air, motionless.

Rendwick stared at it, still sprawled on the ground. Blood pooled around the spider’s body. This was a mutt from the Capitol. He expected it to put up a much bigger fight than this. He didn’t think he’d actually destroy it with his spear.

Gingerly, he got up. He winced again and put a hand to his ribs. He couldn’t feel exactly what was wrong, but he suspected that at least one of his ribs were cracked, if not broken. Other than that, he didn’t seem to be that badly hurt. His arms, left cheek, and chin were skinned and bleeding from falling on the concrete so many times, but that was it.

Rendwick circled the spider widely, avoiding the still widening pool of blood. He didn’t see it twitch or make any sudden movements. He didn’t dare touch it though, in case it wasn’t dead. He couldn’t possibly have killed this thing on his own. He thought back to past Hunger Games, and how the giant mutts then always took more than one person to kill. There was no way this thing was dead.

This wasn’t really an issue of self-confidence for Rendwick. It was more about being realistic. He knew he wasn’t strong enough to take this thing down by himself. He knew the Gamemakers must be very, very surprised, if not shocked. He never really knew what went on wherever they were, but he suspected that some of them were trying to figure how this happened. He knew Lartius was happy it was over and that Rendwick had managed to survive with minimal injuries. Lartius knew the Games could be unpredictable, but he had confidence in him all the same. He imagined Lartius saying, “You’re a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for.”

Rendwick wiped the sweat off his forehead and realized that the streetlights had turned off. He looked up at the sun rising in the sky. It had been a really long night and he was exhausted. He wanted to go back to the hideout and try to sleep. Lartius was waiting for him back there. Rendwick went back to retrieve his spear, but saw that it was gone. Perplexed, he looked around, trying to remember where he dropped it.

“Looking for this?”

Rendwick looked up. Phox was dangling the spear over the fire escape, Alto standing next to him. Both of them climbed over the edge of the fire escape and landed in front of Rendwick.

“Thanks for destroying that thing,” Alto said, indicating the spider.

Rendwick heart rate doubled. He backed away slowly but soon backed into the wall of the adjacent building. He was cornered, unarmed, without backup, and with possibly broken ribs. Maybe he should’ve let Lartius come with him.

“And thanks for giving this back to me,” Phox added, hitching up the spear in his grasp. “I’m gonna have a lot of fun with it.”

DISTRICT 1 Phox Baxwoll Volumnia Roxen
DISTRICT 2 Lartius Rankine Eunia Allardyce
DISTRICT 3 Alto Whishart Fannia Lapworth
DISTRICT 4 Rendwick Combe Nitya Flamsteed
DISTRICT 5 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 6 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 7 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 8 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 9 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 10 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 11 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE
DISTRICT 12 MALE TRIBUTE FEMALE TRIBUTE

The Victor

Lartius was not going to pace around the hideout and wait for Rendwick to get back. Time passed too slowly in there. He wanted to know what was going on. He didn’t want to just ignore and push it aside until he came back. Sometimes ignorance was bliss, other times it hung heavily on his shoulders.

Lartius chose to watch everything from the fire escape. But as he watched Rendwick take on the spider, he was conflicted about his decision. On one hand, he didn’t want to keep himself in the dark about this, but watching Rendwick do this by himself was painful. He might as well have been back home watching this on TV.

Lartius was surprised that Rendwick managed to kill the spider. As soon as it had sunk in that the spider was dead and that Rendwick was up and moving, Lartius let out an enormous sigh of relief. He made his way down the fire escape to join Rendwick at the Cornucopia. As soon as he landed on the sidewalk, he heard yelling coming from the Cornucopia. Yelling coming from more than one voice.

His heart seemed to stop for a good five seconds. Then, Lartius broke into a sprint. From far off he could see Phox and Alto cornering Rendwick in the alley on 6th Street. He climbed up the fire escape of the nearest building to keep himself hidden from them. If he got there fast enough, he could kill Alto and Phox before they even knew he was there. He didn’t even know where they came from. He’d been focused on Rendwick’s battle with the spider. It was like they came out of nowhere.

As he ran, leaping from roof to roof, he tried not to panic and jump to the worst conclusion. He tried not to think, “what if I don’t get there in time?” He had no choice, he had to save Rendwick. They made a deal. He just kept running, wishing and hoping that he would beat the cannon.

When he reached the fire escape, he saw Phox and Alto heading out. Lartius couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other, but his heart hammered against his ribs when he saw Phox carrying they spear as they ran off.

“No,” he whispered.

He raced down the fire escape. When he jumped down into the alley, he was horrified by the sight of a bloody, badly injured Rendwick lying on the ground.

“No, no, no, no, no!” Lartius instantly raced to his side. He lifted Rendwick’s head up. “Stay with me, Rendwick, please, stay with me.”

Rendwick looked at him. “Lartius-”

“No, don’t talk. Save your energy. I’m gonna get you back to the hideout, and we’re gonna wait for one of the sponsors to send you something. Anything. Anything that’ll keep you alive.” He shifted his hands so he could help him stand up.

“It’s no use,” Rendwick said heavily. “We won’t get anything.”

“Don’t say that, we will. Someone’s gotta be impressed that you managed to take down that giant spider.”

Rendwick let out a small laugh. “You saw that?”

Lartius nodded. “Yeah. You were incredible.”

“I didn’t think I was gonna kill it,” Rendwick said.

“Yeah, but you did. You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for.”

Rendwick smiled up at him, but he was shaking his head a little. “I’m still not entirely sure it’s dead,” he said, laughing a little faintly.

“No, it’s definitely dead,” Lartius said, smiling a little. “And I guarantee you someone will reward you for it.”

Rendwick shook his head more seriously. “No, they won’t. We stayed hidden for most of the Games. Nobody knows where. We only left to get food and water. We weren’t in the thick of the action except for the bloodbath. The only thing I got from a sponsor was bread. You didn’t get anything.”

Lartius felt his smile disappear and his heart sink into his stomach. Rendwick was right. He tried not to panic.

“And even if you’re right, ” Rendwick added, “and one of the sponsors was impressed enough to send something, we wouldn’t get it in time. I’d already be dead.”

“No! You’re not gonna die!”

“I am. One of us was going to at some point, right? That was the point of all this.”

Lartius shook his head. He felt tears sting his eyes. “I can’t lose you. We made a deal.”

Rendwick nodded. “I know.”

A set of images swam through his mind. The sandcastle they started making on the shores of District 4, the snare Rendwick helped him with on the first day of training, the bread they shared after Lartius found him, the old branches he tried to use for his makeshift trident, the bracelet Rendwick wore as his district token, his eyes, his smile. He could practically feel the warmth of Rendwick’s arm around his shoulders and hear his laugh play in his ears. This was not how things were supposed to go.

“I’m sorry,” Rendwick said, reaching up and tilting Lartius’ face up with his hand.

“For what?” Lartius asked.

“You were right,” Rendwick said. “I didn’t think I’d need backup afterwards, but I did. I should’ve let you come with me.”

A tear dropped onto Rendwick’s chest. “It’s okay,” Lartius said.

“No, it’s not,” Rendwick argued faintly. “I’m sorry.”

“I know, I know.” Lartius brushed Rendwick’s hair off his forehead.

Rendwick’s breathing was getting more and more shallow. Lartius could feel it against his arms.

“Promise me something?” Rendwick asked, his voice getting fainter.

“Anything.”

Rendwick’s hand moved up to Lartius’ cheek. “Promise me you’ll win. Win for me.” Rendwick’s thumb wiped away a tear. “If anyone deserves to survive all this, it’s you.”

Lartius nodded. “Yeah.” More tears dropped onto Rendwick’s chest. “I promise.”

Rendwick pulled Lartius’ head down so he could hear him better. “And you know, despite how things are turning out now, I’m actually glad I got picked for the Games.” He took a deep breath. “The Games brought me back to you.”

Lartius immediately hugged him, still crying. Seconds later, the cannon boomed. Lartius doubled over in devastated sobs, clinging to him more tightly. He tightened his grip on him and buried his face into Rendwick’s shoulder. He really didn’t care that he was on national television.

Lartius held onto him as tightly as he could, as if he could somehow bring him back to life if he just held on. Don’t leave me here, Lartius thought. How am I going to get through this without you? He needed Rendwick. He needed Rendwick next to him. He felt happier, less lonely. If the two of them had never found each other in the arena, he knew the Games would’ve gone differently for both of them. He knew time would’ve passed slower in the arena if he were by himself. He didn’t even want to think about what he would’ve been like if he had somehow been sucked into the troupe with the other high-district tributes.

Lartius had never told Rendwick this, but he’d thought way more ahead than Rendwick knew. Sure, he’d thought of how to evade the Gamemakers, but also past that, to when the Games were over, and what their lives would be like, where they might live together. He didn’t really have a clear picture of their future, but he knew they would be happy together. All those pictures were slipping away from him, like waves in the ocean. He kept holding onto Rendwick. He knew the hovercraft would be here to pick up Rendwick’s body as soon as he left. He was not leaving Rendwick, dead or alive.

Then, he remembered his promise to Rendwick. He promised Rendwick he would win. How would he look if Phox and Alto doubled back and found him like this? He could’ve sworn he heard Rendwick’s voice in his head. You have to keep going. Stay strong. You can do this. He took a deep heaving breath. He knew he had tears to spare, but Rendwick wanted him to keep going.

Lartius finally raised his head and looked at Rendwick. His eyes were unfocused, staring out into nothing. He gently closed Rendwick’s eyelids. He couldn’t make himself look away from Rendwick’s face. He heard Rendwick’s voice in his head again. Keep going, he was saying. Get up and go back to the hideout.

Finally, Lartius set Rendwick’s body back on the ground and slowly stood up. The front of his shirt was covered in Rendwick’s blood. He promised Rendwick he’d win for him. He had to remember that. He had to make it his motivation to keep going. He slowly made his way back to the hideout. When he reached 9th Street, he could hear the hovercraft behind him but didn’t turn around. His mind felt numb and his limbs heavy.

Tears were still falling down Lartius’ face. He felt his hand twitch, as if it were instinctively reaching for Rendwick. He knew he had to be strong, but he also needed to give himself time to grieve. If he didn’t let himself grieve, he was never going to get over this. He’d just lost the one person he’d connected with the most in his life, someone he’d bonded with so incredibly well, someone he trusted more than anyone else. There will never be anyone else like him, he decided. No one. And given that they were hidden for most of the Games, no one would understand exactly what he was going through.

Things had moved so fast with them, from when they were reunited in the Training Center in the Capitol to the first time they kissed to the streetlights turning on in the arena last night. As quickly as they had gotten together and as quickly as things progressed with them, it was all gone in a flash. Guilt began to fill up his veins. It was his fault Rendwick was dead. He felt like he could’ve done something to prevent it.

I could’ve saved him, he though to himself. I could’ve been his lookout from the hideout, I could’ve seen them coming. I could’ve dealt with them while he was still busy.

You wouldn’t have been able to see much from the fire escape, he argued with himself. Your eyes were on him to make sure he was okay.

Then, I could’ve gotten to the hideout faster, he thought back. I would’ve gotten there in time if I hadn’t decided to climb up the fire escape.

You were too far away, he thought back, his inner voice getting stronger. They’d already done too much damage.

Well then, I should’ve gone with him, he thought. I should have insisted. I would’ve kept guard from a safe distance, closer than the fire escape outside the hideout.

You had no way of knowing that, he argued back. You didn’t know Phox and Alto were there waiting for him

This is the Hunger Games! he yelled back. I was supposed to be prepared for anything and everything!

It was part of their deal. They were supposed to protect each other. This was why Rendwick had him stay behind while he faced the giant spider. But neither of them factored in the possibility of needing back up when Rendwick was finished with the spider. Lartius felt like he should’ve planned ahead and thought of that before Rendwick left. He felt like he’d failed.

One thing that still plagued Lartius was how the hell Phox and Alto managed to get to Rendwick without getting noticed by the spider, and how they were able to kill Rendwick when he had his spear. Lartius knew Rendwick would not go down without a fight, but when Phox and Alto walked off, Phox carrying the spear, they didn’t appear to be hurt, or limping, or have a scratch on them at all.

Lartius finally understood why Rendwick hated the Capitol and the Games so much. Coming from higher districts, they were raised like pigs for the slaughter. All they knew was how to kill, to bring pride to their district. They’d been essentially brainwashed since they were kids. Only Rendwick had known the true evil of the Games, what it did to a person’s mind. It felt like poison.

Out of the six high-district tributes that were always favored to win, it was horrible to think that the majority of them would die every year. Sometimes all of them did, when they were faced with an unusually skilled lower-district tribute. They’d trained for years to fight their way to glory and pride, to become adored by so many Capitol citizens. But they had no idea that most of them were dead from the beginning. The lower-district tributes knew this. There was always ever only one Victor. One sole reminder of the Capitol’s generosity.

Lartius knew Rendwick wouldn’t want him blaming himself, but Lartius couldn’t help it. He knew he could’ve saved him somehow, despite what his inner voice said. Now that he knew what to expect, he would give anything to rewind the Games about twenty minutes and to just try again. I can do this. I can prove it. I can protect him this time. He felt a little childish wishing for another chance. It was like having an argument with someone and coming up with a good comeback hours after it was over. No, that was a bad analogy. This was ten, maybe twenty, times worse.

He needed to find a way to shake everything off if he was going to win for Rendwick. Having a numb mind and heavy limbs would impair him in the arena. It was funny how much he’d changed in a little over a week. At the start of the Games, he was determined, bloodthirsty, ready to attack anyone who underestimated him. He went into the arena ready to show everyone what he was made of. He could’ve easily channeled all of his energy into fighting towards the end. But as the Games progressed and he fell deeper into his relationship with Rendwick, he stopped caring about winning the Games, or really about himself anymore. His focus and his priorities shifted to Rendwick. Protecting him, keeping him safe. It felt like nothing else mattered. And now, with only two other tributes standing between him and victory, he felt like he’d changed too much to revert to his old ways. His thirst for blood and his desire to prove people wrong had washed away. He thought back to his previous idea, “what would I’ve been like in here if Rendwick and I hadn’t teamed up? What if he’d never even been Reaped in the first place?”

He knew the answer instantly. He knew that if Rendwick hadn’t been Reaped, their lives would’ve been completely different. The past few weeks shaped who they’d become. He knew that Rendwick would remember him from the second his name was called at the District 2 Reaping. He would root for Lartius immediately, but he would be scared for him, not wanting him to die, not wanting to go through what he did when Trexa, his twelve-year-old neighbor, died in the Games. He would be thrilled with Lartius’ training score of ten, he would drink up every ounce of his interview the night before the Games began.

When his mind traveled to the Games, Lartius felt a horrible chill rise up his spine. He knew how Rendwick would be, watching all of this, but he felt a sense of uneasiness at the idea of himself. He would be his determined, bloodthirsty self. He might team up with the high-district troupe, albeit reluctantly. He would be in the thick of the action throughout the whole Games. Lartius knew that Rendwick, at first, would hate having to watch everything from the other side of the TV. He would wish he were in the arena to protect Lartius. He wouldn’t want him to die. But once he saw Lartius in the arena, doing whatever he could to win, he would feel conflicted about cheering for Lartius. Sure, they knew each other when they were kids, but Rendwick would see a changed person, no longer the eight-year-old he made a sandcastle with. He would only see Lartius as another typical high-district tribute, too focused on the goal to realize what he would be going through to get here.

At least Rendwick would still be alive.

Fresh tears filled Lartius’ eyes at the thought, and spilled down his face. He not only understood why Rendwick hated the Games and the Capitol so much, but he also realized why it had taken him so long for him to feel the same. In District 2, all the tributes were regarded as brave soldiers, as if they were being drafted into a war. They were the district’s heroes. If any of them didn’t make it to the end, their death was regarded as a tragedy. Everyone talked about how close they got to the finish line and how bravely they fought for their lives. Lartius didn’t really know them personally, because every potential tribute was to be deemed a hero just for being picked for the Games. They were training mates prior to the Games and heroes during the Games, and nothing more. Lartius suspected the adults in the Training Center came up with this to prevent everyone from getting too attached to each other.

It was completely different and so much worse when you knew someone personally in the Games, someone you cared about a lot. It was a horrible feeling. One minute, they were right in front of your eyes, as alive as can be, and the next, they just didn’t exist anymore. They were gone. He knew how his parents must be feeling right now. He imagined that, no matter how much they believed in him, they’d still be very scared if Lartius had been the one battling the spider instead of Rendwick.

Lartius remembered how the Games had changed Rendwick when he watched Trexa die. Not just his attitude about the Gamemakers and the Capitol, but the Games themselves and the other tributes with lower odds. He remembered what Rendwick said on their first night in the hideout. “Every time I see a tribute’s face in the sky, I can’t help but think of their parents. Over the past forty-two years, nine-hundred-sixty-six people have died. That makes nine-hundred-sixty-six broken families.” And now there were nine-hundred-eighty-seven dead tributes and broken families, including Rendwick and his family.

Thinking back to the beginning of the Games, Lartius remembered how surprised he was that they worked together so well despite their different strategies. Had they not fallen for each other, Lartius knew they would have to part ways before the Games came down to at least four other tributes. Relationship or not, they respected each other too much to kill each other if it came down to both of them in the end. If Rendwick had been killed after they terminated their alliance, Lartius probably would’ve just silently mourned him for a while and gone on with the Games.

A horrible, sick feeling spread throughout his stomach at the thought of that scenario. He hated the idea of regarding Rendwick as just another dead tribute in the Games, even hypothetically. He was just so much more than that. Maybe not to anyone else in the Games, but he meant a lot to Lartius and that had to count for something. If Rendwick had teamed up with anyone else in the arena, he would’ve made an impact on their lives as well. Probably not for the high-district troupe, and maybe not to the same extent he did for Lartius, but he would’ve made some kind of impact, especially on the lower-district tributes. That was just the kind of person he was.

Lartius wondered what Nitya knew of him, and what she told the other high-district tributes about him. In their conversations over the past few days, Lartius had gotten to know who Rendwick was back home. Rendwick had said he was the strongest and fastest in his class, and that he had a developed a reputation for being very focused and determined, but all of that hid the fact that he hated every minute of his time spend at the Training Center. He’d said people had high expectations for him. Expectations he did not want to fulfill. He had more important things to do than please everyone but himself.

The numbness in his mind made him feel almost like he was dead, too. Consumed in his grief and survivor’s guilt, Lartius knew he would have to find a way to overcome it. Right now, it felt like it was all he could feel and think about. He didn’t know if or how we would be able to push past it and win. He tried not to let the feeling that he was dead overpower everything else. He had to build up his motivation. It was going to be tough to do on his own.

One thought replayed in Lartius’ mind: Rendwick did not deserve to die. He kept thinking it over and over. He didn’t deserve this. Rendwick was probably one of the most deserving people to win the Games, if not the most deserving. He knew exactly what they were about, and he knew what the families at home went through watching this. There’s not a single death in history that does not affect anyone else. Rendwick’s death would affect everyone else he was close to, his family, his mentor, his stylist, and maybe some people back in District 4 that were friendly with him. It would probably even make an impact on the people who only knew him for a few seconds. Lartius thought of maybe doing something to honor Rendwick when he won. He wasn’t sure what yet, but he would figure it out. One thing he did know was that, whatever it was, it couldn’t involve his sexuality. He’d kept that a secret from everyone until the very end. If he’d wanted the rest of the world to know, they would know.

Lartius felt his hand twitch again and balled it up into a fist. A few more tears leaked out of his eyes and trailed down his cheek. He knew the people watching were surprised by how he was acting now. He was a strong, tough tribute from District 2. He was supposed to be stoic and stone-faced. He really didn’t care what they thought of him now. He stopped caring once he and Rendwick had teamed up in the arena. Really, the only person whose opinion he cared about was Rendwick.

Lartius knew that Rendwick would be exactly like this if the situation were reversed, if Lartius had been the one to take on the spider and was cornered by Phox and Alto afterwards. And Lartius would do the same thing Rendwick did: he would say it wasn’t Rendwick’s fault and have him promise he would win. Lartius had worked too hard to keep Rendwick safe for this long just to have him give up. Lartius wiped away a falling tear. He had to think of this if he ever started to break down over Rendwick’s death.

It felt like hours passed before he reached the fire escape to the hideout. He didn’t even know how he got there. He felt like he was just wandering aimlessly around the arena, stuck inside his head. Lartius felt oddly disconnected from his body, since he was so consumed in his thoughts. He wasn’t even concentrating on where he had been walking. He slowly climbed up the fire escape. The numbness in his mind cleared up a little when he heard a faint beeping noise coming from over his head. He peered up and around the fire escape and saw a parachute gliding down the air. Lartius climbed up a little faster and caught the parachute before it clanged onto the fire escape. He quickly opened the panel in the window and stepped inside the hideout. He leaned his back against the panel to shut it, and opened the parachute. Inside he found bread, cheese, and chicken, enough for two people. Compared to what they’d been eating the last several days, it was a feast. He noticed the seaweed-tinted, fish-shaped bread. The parachute came from District 4.

Lartius shut the metal case and let it fall to the ground. He slid to the ground as he felt more tears come. Given the size of the portions, he knew that District 4 sent this thinking Rendwick would still be alive. It was to reward Rendwick for killing the spider, just like Lartius had hoped someone would. He propped up his arms on his knees and pressed his eyes to his jacket sleeves. He needed to let it all out.

Rendwick’s body had probably reached the Capitol by now. He had to be cleaned, redressed, and packed into a wooden box to be sent to District 4. Lartius thought of Rendwick’s family. He thought his parents must be devastated to have seen their son die. Being on that side of the TV screen sounded gut-wrenchingly awful, especially if you were a parent. Knowing that your kid was in imminent danger and there was nothing you could do to stop it, no way you could protect them. It was how Lartius felt when Rendwick was dying in his arms. He wanted to do something to save him, and the fact that he couldn’t made him feel utterly powerless. He thought of Rendwick’s baby sister, Thonia, and how Rendwick said he’d helped raise her and that he wouldn’t be able to watch her grow up. He remembered back to something Rendwick had said on their first night together. “I just feel like we were meant to do better things than to kill each other in an arena for other people’s entertainment.”

He jumped when he heard clattering on the fire escape. Instinctively, he stood up quickly and reached for his knives, but the footsteps kept descending the fire escape. Lartius forced himself to breathe evenly. He pressed his ear to the panel and waited for their footsteps to fade.

“You got your revenge for the girl from your district,” came Phox’s muffled voice.

“No, he didn’t kill her,” Alto said back.

“What?” Phox said, annoyed.

“When you took your spear back, he didn’t have any backup weapons. It was his ally who killed her, the one who can throw knives.”

“But you said you saw him take the knife out of her back,” Phox argued.

“He was probably getting it back for him,” Alto replied.

“That guy - the knife thrower - is probably already dead. Remember the cannon earlier?”

“Yeah, but right before it, someone screamed, and it was definitely a girl. That was the girl from Twelve.” The footsteps stopped briefly. “Whatever. We need to find that parachute.”

“You sure you saw it fall over here?” Phox asked.

“Positive,” Alto replied.

“Well, I don’t see it anywhere,” Phox said. “He probably took it and went off. He could be anywhere.” The footsteps climbed down the fire escape.

“He can’t be that far,” Alto countered. “We just saw the parachute fall. He’s gotta be somewhere nearby.”

The footsteps stopped again. You can’t stay here, Rendwick’s voice said in his head. You have to get moving. Lartius walked across the room to get his backpack, and put the parachute inside it. Rendwick’s backpack was still by the window. He hesitated for a minute. He wanted to take it with him, or at least take whatever Rendwick had, in case it helped him. You have to get moving, Rendwick’s voice repeated. Lartius decided to leave the backpack for now. If he got a chance, he’d go back for it later.

Very carefully, he pulled the panel open and quietly stepped onto the fire escape. Phox and Alto were a level below him, talking indistinctly. They were heading down the stairs. He had to move quickly but carefully. He pulled the panel shut.

“Hold on a second,” he heard Phox say.

Lartius froze on the fire escape.

“Was it just me, or was one of those panels in the window a little open?”

Without thinking, Lartius looked down at them just in time to see them look up. He quickly stepped onto the roof and ran.

He heard clanging on the fire escape and knew they were coming after him. Good, he thought to himself. I just want to get this over with. He wasn’t sure how he was going to take both of them on. He knew he could do it, he just needed a plan. Since they were the ones chasing him, he couldn’t really corner them anywhere and go apeshit on both of them. They had the upper hand here.

Lartius looked at the far end of the arena and saw the tallest building and got an idea. Who said he couldn’t corner them? He knew the quickest way to get up there, and he remembered that Phox didn’t spend a lot of time at the rings course in the Training Center. But he knew Phox would still cross the wire if it meant getting to Lartius. If he trapped them on the roof of the building, he could find a way to take them both down. A couple of knife throws might do it, maybe some hand-to-hand combat.

Lartius broke into a sprint and kept going uptown. He would have to veer left and head towards 11th Avenue soon, since the building was around the center of the arena and they were still on the east side. It would take a long time to get back up there after he and Rendwick were chased downtown by the spider. The only differences here were that they were taking the shorter way, and that Lartius had more of a head start, which was exactly what he wanted. He wanted to get up to the roof first and be ready for when Phox and Alto reached him and had nowhere else to go.

Lartius ran past 28th Street. He could hear Phox and Alto behind him, probably coming up with a plan together as they ran. This chase was what the Gamemakers and spectators in the Capitol wanted. There had been virtually no action for a few days. With the chase, plus the girl from Twelve getting killed and Rendwick dying after his battle with a spider mutt all in one day, this was a treat for them.

Time seemed to speed up a little. It wasn’t horribly slow, like when he and Rendwick were being chased by the spider. It was almost back to its usual pace outside the hideout. Lartius felt like the Gamemakers knew everything was about to end and were waiting with anticipation (and probably a little bit of impatience) to see who would emerge victorious.

Lartius passed 41st Street. He was about halfway there. He suspected this was the side of him the Capitol viewers and some in District 2 were expecting more of during the Games, not the side of him that cried over Rendwick’s dead body. He remembered what Rendwick said about being taught not to show emotion at the Training Center in District 4, because emotion is weakness. Lartius disagreed with that sentiment. He thought it look more strength to let the tears fall than to hold everything in.

When he got to 60th Street, about ten to fifteen blocks away from the wire, he made a left and headed for 11th Avenue. His mind went back to when he walked back to the hideout, and how he felt like he’d died himself. He mentally shook himself. Don’t think like that, his inner voice said. You need to be alive. You need to win this thing.

He passed Avenue N and listened behind him to make sure they were still following him. He heard quick footsteps and indistinct voices. He could’ve sworn Alto was wondering aloud why Lartius was changing direction all of a sudden. He hoped they wouldn’t figure it out before they got there. He doubted any of them had been on the roof of the tallest building. It was too far away from the action in the arena. But still, he wasn’t entirely sure what they’d been up to.

This run from the hideout to the tallest building wasn’t nearly as bad as when he and Rendwick ran the other way from the spider. Lartius wasn’t running for his life here, he was just running towards his plan to win. He wasn’t scared of Phox or Alto. He knew he could take them down.

He passed Avenue T. He could hear Phox and Alto getting frustrated behind him. They talked amongst themselves, but they were too far back to Lartius to hear.

“Don’t even think about it!” Alto suddenly yelled.

“Why the hell not?” Phox shouted. “One shot and he’d be dead! I’ve been waiting for days to get this thing back, did you really think I wasn’t going to use it?”

“And what if you missed?” Alto yelled. “He’s really fast and he has a head start. What if he grabbed your spear and ran off with it? What if the same thing happened with your axe? Where would you be then?”

Phox didn’t say anything. They continued chasing after Lartius in silence.

Oddly, Lartius was not getting tired at all. He hadn’t gotten any sleep at all last night, what with the spider chasing after them and Rendwick going to fight it. He had one goal, one purpose right now: win. Rendwick’s words to him fused with his adrenaline and powered him as he ran.

He passed 1st Avenue. Ten more blocks to go. It was like when the Games first began. He wasn’t scared or worried about whether or not he could do this anymore. He knew he could. He had to. He didn’t care about bringing pride and glory to his district. They had plenty of that already from their previous Victors. This was for Rendwick and no one else.

He finally reached 11th Avenue and made a right, heading uptown towards 78th Street. He heard some kind of indistinct noise of what sounded a little like frustration from behind him, but he couldn’t tell who made it.

“Seriously, who has this much stamina?” came Phox’s faint voice. “And where the hell is he going?”

Lartius felt laughter rise up in his throat. He found Phox’s frustration satisfying. He hoped the kill would be even more satisfying. He was about 60% sure Phox was the one who inflicted the damage that caused Rendwick’s death. He remembered Phox carrying the spear as he and Alto walked off. He didn’t remember seeing blood on the spear’s blade, but if Phox had the spear, Lartius thought he must have killed Rendwick for it. He sped up even more.

Lartius passed 70th Street. He was almost there. He forced himself to breathe more evenly, since he was too worked up to take deep breaths now. This plan could not go awry. If it did, he was dead.

He could see the wire. He heard Phox and Alto talking indistinctly behind him but he didn’t even try to listen in on what they were saying. He reached 78th Street. Lartius rubbed his palms together, jumped, caught the rings, and began to cross the wire.

“Are you serious?” he heard Phox say incredulously behind him.

“Dude, don’t waste the spear!” Alto said quickly. Lartius’ heart jumped in alarm, but he made himself keep moving from ring to ring. “I’m serious. He’s moving too fast and you only got one shot.”

“Is there another way to get to him?” Phox asked.

“He looks like he knows the area well, so this is probably the quickest way. Let’s just go.”

Lartius forced himself to breathe evenly and keep going. He couldn’t slow down, he couldn’t let them catch up to him on the wire. He did not come this far to be killed when he was so close to the end. He heard the footsteps stop behind him. He couldn’t quite hear what they were saying anymore. He did catch the word “spear” and smiled to himself. He didn’t know if any of the backpack designs were the same but it sounded like Phox was having more trouble than Rendwick did with what to do with his spear when he crossed the wire.

Lartius focused on getting to the other side, then he could focus on the rooftop. He could hear them still arguing behind him, their voices getting louder.

“How the hell is that safe? It’s an electric wire!” Phox yelled at Alto.

“Of course it’s safe or he’d be dead already! Stop being a pussy and come on!” Alto shouted.

“I’m not leaving my spear behind!” Phox yelled back.

“Just leave it! You still have your axe, you don’t need the spear! He has nowhere to go anyway! Are you really gonna punk out now? We’re so close!”

Lartius was about halfway across when he felt extra weight behind him on the wire. He knew they were following him, just like he wanted them to. He kept his breathing even to pace himself and not be out of breath when he reached the other side.

The wire was a little more bouncy with three people on it, given how strong and heavy they all were and how fast they were moving. Lartius kept his eyes on the rings, careful to not let his hand accidentally brush the underside of the wire. He’d come too far to make a stupid mistake like that. He wasn’t sure if he should rush to the end or not, since he could sense they were gaining on him a little, but he wanted to get to there in one piece. In the end, he felt that was more important.

He was about three-quarters of the way to the end. He felt a surge of panic around his throat at the anticipation of finally taking down Phox and Alto, but he forced himself to swallow it. One thing at a time, he reminded himself sternly. This was his problem, Rendwick always said he always thought ahead too much to focus on what was happening right now.

He finally reached the end and jumped down to the rooftop. Without a second glance behind him, he headed up for the rooftop of the tallest building. As he climbed up, Lartius’ mind was completely clear for the first time since Rendwick had died. He was focused, he had a plan, and he was going to fulfill his promise to Rendwick. He remembered what Rendwick said about Trexa, and how he flew into a rage when she was killed. He thought maybe he could channel his grief, guilt, and whatever else he was feeling into a rage big enough to kill both Phox and Alto. Maybe doing that would help him get over Rendwick’s death.

Now that he was safely on the roof, he gave himself permission to look behind him. Phox and Alto were almost at the end of the wire. Lartius took a deep breath and reached into his jacket for a couple knives, one in each hand.

Lartius soon realized that he didn’t really know what he was up against, since he had never fought them before. He didn’t know their fighting styles too well. He tried not to think of that as a disadvantage. They had never fought him either, so they didn’t know what to expect from him.

Lartius watched them reach the other side of the wire and head for the roof of the tallest building. Lartius stepped back a little to give himself enough space between them. Breathe in, Rendwick’s voice instructed. And breathe out. Lartius obliged. He had to stay focused, but he couldn’t be too calm. He would need to rely on his adrenaline and channeling all of his emotions into winning the Games for Rendwick.

Lartius’ hand flexed around the handle of one of the knives, waiting for a closer target. Phox jumped onto the roof and took about three steps towards Lartius before the knife whirled towards him and sank into his shoulder. Phox fell backwards but stayed on the roof. Lartius threw the other knife at Alto, who ducked. Before he could reach for another knife, Alto charged at him, tackling him to the ground.

In a split second, Lartius remembered Alto didn’t have a weapon and immediately switched tactics. Since was Alto was on top of him, he was in self-defense mode, deflecting every strike Alto aimed at him. He missed a few, getting punched in the jaw three times. Lartius forced himself to ignore the pain. He managed to get enough momentum to roll them over so he was on top and get in a few punches himself. They struggled to stay in power, rolling over and over to get on top. A few times they rolled dangerously close to the edge of the roof and instantly went the opposite direction. The air was filled with their voices, mixed with emotion as their cries cut through the air. Frustration. Anger. Determination. Rage. Grief. Guilt. Despair. Aguish. Devastation. Heartbreak.

Alto managed to get back on top and got in a few more strikes to Lartius’ face. Lartius could taste blood in his mouth and swallowed a mouthful of it. He was gripping the front of Alto’s jacket. Alto’s face hovered over Lartius’, contorted in hatred and fury. Lartius could feel it radiating off him

“Don’t waste your energy,” Alto snarled. “It’s useless. We both know I’m the one coming out of this alive. You killed Fannia, and now I’m gonna kill you.”

Lartius gripped Alto’s jacket a little tighter. “You can’t kill me,” he said, his voice a mix of grief and rage. “I’m already dead.”

He hooked his legs around Alto’s calves and rolled them over so Lartius was on top. He quickly reached inside his jacket, pulled out the first knife he touched, and stabbed Alto repeatedly. Blood rained around him as he raised his knife up in the air and brought it back down for another strike to Alto’s stomach. Alto let out a cry of alarm and squirmed in shock at first, unsure of how to fend Lartius off when he had a knife and Alto had nothing. After the first three stabs, Alto was still.

Lartius kept stabbing until he lost count. Finally, he stopped, breathing a little heavily. He looked down at what he’d done. Alto’s chest and stomach were a gruesome, mangled mess. Thinking back to what he said to Alto, he thought to himself, Well, at least if I’m dead I can’t be killed again.

Alto’s mangled chest and stomach were too gruesome. Lartius had to make himself look away from it. One down, he thought. One more to go. He just had to stay focused and he would fulfill his promise. Be strong, Rendwick’s voice said. You can do this.

Lartius was about to get up and finish Phox off when he felt someone grab him by his jacket and yank him off Alto’s body. Phox pulled Lartius to the ground and kneeled over him, axe in hand. He brought the blade down quickly. Instinct took over, and Lartius quickly moved his head to the side. The blade of the axe dug into the ground. Phox tried to pull it out, but he’d put too much force behind it. It was stuck. Lartius struck him across the face and rolled him over. He tried to reach for one of his knives when he was on top of Phox, but Phox rolled them over again. Lartius could feel the edge of the roof with his left leg. He was dangerously close. He gripped the collar of Phox’s shirt.

Like Alto, Phox struck Lartius across the face a few times. His expression wasn’t furious like Alto’s, though. He had a malicious gleam in his eye. He seemed like the kind of tribute who liked to play with his food before he ate it. Hatred boiled through Lartius’ blood. There was no way he was losing to this guy.

Lartius felt the edge of the rooftop with his leg again and an idea sprang into his head. He stopped fighting him. This needed careful planning or they would both be dead.

Phox grinned. A horrible, sinister grin. “You’re giving up already?” He shook his head. “I thought you’d be putting up more of a fight, given how you said the rest of us shouldn’t underestimate you.”

Lartius didn’t say anything. He wouldn’t give Phox the satisfaction that he was getting to him.

Phox noticed the faint tear streaks on Lartius’ face. His eyebrows rose slightly. “Oh,” he said in comprehension, “I know what it is. It’s that ally of yours that we killed.”

Lartius felt his entire body tense up. Don’t talk about him, he thought furiously. He knew whatever Phox had to say about Rendwick would be unpleasant.

“I knew it,” Phox said. “You were actually dumb enough to make friends with him and get attached to him.” He shook his head again. “And I really thought you were someone to watch out for in here. But you’re just as weak as the rest of them.”

The hatred boiling in Lartius’ blood doubled at a vicious pace. He could feel his body start to shake with anger.

“He died just the way I thought he would, too,” Phox continued, his grin widening. “No weapon, not even an attempt to fight back. I got to put on the show for everyone watching exactly the way I wanted to. Do you think District 4 liked it?”

Lartius spat blood in his face. His teeth were clenched tightly together and his hand was shaking on the collar of Phox’s shirt.

Phox laughed. Softly at first, then it grew louder and more maniacal. “You have no idea how much I love this. I can see on your face just how much I got to you just by killing your ally.”

Rendwick’s voice echoed in his ears again. Promise me you’ll win. Win for me. It bounced around his eardrums until it became indistinct noise. Lartius gently reached for another knife in his jacket.

Lartius could feel the rest of his grief burst through his veins. His tongue was pressed so hard to the roof of his mouth that he couldn’t speak. He wasn’t just my ally, he thought to himself. I loved him.

In one swift move, Lartius stabbed Phox in the stomach. He struck him one last time across the face with his other hand, rolled him over the edge of the roof, and released him from his grasp. He rose to his knees as he watched Phox fall, all the way down the side of the building. Phox landed on the concrete with a “splat” Lartius could hear from up on the roof. The cannon sounded seconds later. He won.

Lartius made himself get up. He tried to walk to the center of the rooftop to wait for the hovercraft, but he didn’t get very far. He dropped to his knees, let his knife fall, rested his forehead on the floor, and laced his hands together, behind his head.

The Aftermath

This was not how he imagined being a Victor would feel like. He always saw the Victors elated when they won, at least those from higher districts. Instead, the rage and grief he felt left a horrible taste in his mouth and a permanent chill through his veins. He shut his eyes, waiting to see if any more tears came. They didn’t.

Rendwick’s words were still ringing in his ear. Promise me you’ll win. Win for me. It may have sounded like he wanted Lartius to make him proud. But Lartius knew that winning was the worst way to do that. Then, it hit him. Rendwick didn’t want Lartius to win to make him proud. He wanted Lartius to win for two reasons. The first being that his main priority was to keep him alive, because of their deal. The second was to make him understand what the Hunger Games can do to even the best of people.

He heard something land on the ground behind him. He didn’t have the energy to look around and see what it was. His entire body felt very heavy. After a while, he heard a set of footsteps behind him, felt someone pull him up by his shoulders, and guide him over to the ladder that had dropped down from the hovercraft above them. Obediently, he grabbed a hold on the ladder and stepped onto it. It slowly lifted up as Lartius got a last glimpse of the arena before he was safely inside the hovercraft.

As the Capitol attendants took him into a room, he felt like he was moving in slow motion. He could tell the Capitol attendants were being cautious, as if he would suddenly snap and start attacking everyone in sight. One of them took his jacket and removed all the knives he’d gotten from the arena. His backpack had been taken away, too.

He looked to his right and saw his reflection in a full-length mirror affixed to the wall. He was covered in blood, Rendwick’s on his shirt, Alto’s splotched on his face. His hair was a mess, his face and knuckles were bruised and bloody, his eyes were sunken, and his cheeks a little hollow. He looked like a corpse. It was as if he had died in the arena with Rendwick. It certainly felt like he had. He could let himself think that now.

The hovercraft landed on the roof of the Training Center. Lartius could sense one of the Capitol attendants next to him. He turned his head just in time to see a needle plunge into his arm and everything went black.

When he woke up again, he found himself in a room with glowing yellow lights. All there was in the room was a bed, no windows or visible doors. He noticed he was naked underneath the bed sheets. The clothes he’d worn in the arena, including the shirt with Rendwick’s blood, were gone. He reached up with one hand and felt around his face. Alto’s blood was gone, too. As he lowered his arm, he noticed there was something plugged into it. A tube hooked up to a machine.

The wall opposite the bed slid open and one of the Avoxes assigned to his floor walked in with a tray of food. He set it down on Lartius’ lap, raised half of the bed so Lartius was sitting up, and gave him a spoon before walking back out. Lartius looked down at the food, set the spoon down on the tray, and shut his eyes. He wasn’t in the mood to eat.

The Capitol had made him this. He had been brainwashed since he was a toddler to believe that winning the Games brought pride to his district. He was too young to understand the emotional toll it took on people. He was bred to be a killer since he watched the Hunger Games for the first time. The environment and the circumstances were engineered by the Capitol. They called the shots. He was just their puppet.

Lartius didn’t remember falling asleep, but he did remember reliving a set of horrible, distorted visions of the arena. They seemed much more horrifying than he remembered. The bloodbath, the decapitated body being lifted into the hovercraft, Nitya’s head being smashed into the road, the group of high-district tributes viciously killing the girl from District 5, his arm stabbing Alto over and over as blood rained in the air around them with every strike, Phox being dropped off the roof, and finally Rendwick dying in his arms. As he held him, Rendwick was trying to take deep breaths to say something to him, but nothing ever came out. He felt the blood pouring from Rendwick’s wounds at top speed, sloshing all over him like waves in the ocean. The blood rose to his neck, about to engulf him completely, drown him, when he woke up abruptly.

Panting slightly, Lartius looked around. He noticed that he’d been lying down when he woke up. The tray of food was gone, and the tube had been taken out of his arm. They were letting him move around his room, but he didn’t have the energy to do so. His panting subsided until he was breathing normally again. Lartius laid his head back on the bed and stared up at the glowing yellow lights. It seemed like the Games had drained all his energy from him. He wondered if it would ever come back.

He heard the wall slide open and a few pairs of footsteps coming his way. He was still staring at the ceiling, but he knew it was Brutus and Meriel coming to check on him.

“Congratulations,” Brutus said. “How’re you doing?”

Lartius didn’t answer.

“Lartius?” Lartius felt Brutus gently shake his shoulder. “Hey. Look at me. Are you okay?”

Lartius still didn’t move.

“Yoo-hoo, Lartius,” Meriel chirped, annoyingly snapping her fingers in front of his face. “Anyone home?”

Brutus pulled her away with an irritated look on her face. “Here,” he heard Brutus say. “You should get dressed. They brought you your clothes.”

Lartius didn’t even look at them. He knew he was being stubborn but he had absolutely no desire to see or talk to anyone, let alone get dressed. Meriel reached behind him and gently helped him sit up in bed. With his energy drained, Lartius felt like he had no control over his body anymore. He looked over and saw a pile of clothes laid out for him at his feet. The clothes he’d worn in the arena. He just stared at them. He couldn’t make himself reach for them. Meriel picked up the clothes and put them in his lap. Lartius saw the t-shirt was on top of the pile. He slowly picked it up, and noticed it was clean. Rendwick’s blood was gone.

Rendwick’s last words played in his mind again. And you know, despite how things are turning out now, I’m actually glad I got picked for the Games. The Games brought me back to you. He remembered his exact words, but he couldn’t make Rendwick’s voice say it in his mind. The voice seemed to have disappeared, like it had been left behind in the arena. He put the shirt back in the pile and lay back down on the bed. Lartius felt the tears coming again, rolled over, and buried his face in his pillow, squeezing his eyes shut. The clothes fell off his lap onto the floor. Even though it was the Games that brought them back together, it was the Games that tore them apart again. This time, permanently.

He heard the wall open again. “Is he all right?” came Tayena’s voice.

“No,” Brutus replied. “He’s not talking.”

“Is he responsive?” she asked.

“A little. Not really. I’m told he didn’t eat, either.”

“All right. I’ll deal with him. You should wait outside.”

Meriel and Brutus obediently left the room and the wall shut behind them. Lartius felt a hand on his shoulder gently roll him onto his back and help him sit up again. Tayena silently picked up his clothes from the floor and helped him into them. She didn’t ask about what happened in the arena or about Rendwick. Lartius was glad she wasn’t trying to engage him in conversation. He didn’t feel like talking. He suddenly noticed that his tongue was still pressed hard against the roof of his mouth. He couldn’t remember if he’d let his mouth, or just his whole body, relax between now and when he left the arena.

When he was dressed, Tayena gently guided him off the bed and out of the room. As they made their way down the hall, Lartius just stared at the floor. He passed Brutus, Lyme, and Meriel as Tayena walked him to the elevator. He could tell they all wanted to say something, but he felt Tayena shake her head in their direction. Tayena led him into the elevator and they rode up to the second floor in silence.

As soon as they stepped out of the elevator, Lartius was swamped by his prep team. They swept him from Tayena’s grasp and brought him into the next room, all chattering like wild birds. Aldeen and Bree in particular were gushing about how well he did.

“That last fight was incredible!” Bree squealed.

“It was like something inside you had snapped,” Aldeen added. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were a stone-cold killer!”

That struck a chord with Lartius. He expected it to make his blood boil, but instead his mind went straight back into the arena, reliving the distorted visions from when he was unconscious earlier. He knew it wasn’t an accurate recollection of what happened in the arena, but it was the only version he could remember. More specifically, his mind went back to the last fight on the rooftop. In his mind’s eye, he saw himself repeatedly stab Alto in the chest like some uncontrollable monster, blood splattering everywhere. He felt his jaw clench.

His prep team stripped Lartius down and showered him, still talking. They talked mostly about how they felt about certain part of the Games. It was about them, not about the twenty-three kids they’d seen die on national television. Lartius remembered how much more horrible it was to see these deaths in person, without the barrier of a television screen. He could tell they were most impressed by the last fight. Apparently, Bree liked how he dropped Phox off the roof so he could fall to his death. She thought it was perfectly dramatic.

“We all waited to hear that splat when he fell to the ground,” Aldeen said as she cleaned his hair.

“It was the perfect ending to the Games,” Bree said.

Lartius still didn’t say anything. He kept his eyes down, watching the water and soapsuds swirl down the drain. His prep team didn’t seem to care so much. He didn’t talk to them when they were getting Lartius ready for the Tribute Parade before the Games, or for his interview with Caesar.

Despite the hot shower, Lartius was reminded of the rain in the arena, the refreshing drops soaking into his shirt after the drought the day before. That moment with Rendwick in the hideout after they got out of the rain was one of his favorites. He tried to remember the feeling of Rendwick’s hands trailing up and down his body, but he couldn’t. This was a problem with his distorted visions of the arena. The bad ones seemed worse than they were in the arena, but the good ones were intact, they were just there and gone in a flash.

When they were finally done in the shower, Lartius caught another glimpse of himself in the mirror, in the full-length mirror of the bathroom. He was clean, but much thinner and paler than he expected. He could count his ribs. He looked more like a ghost than a corpse. His body looked like it had died in the arena but he felt like his mind was still alive in there. They sat him down in a chair in front of the mirror.

“I have to ask, though,” Cord said. “What was going on between you and the guy from District 4 you teamed up with? What was his name… Rendwick? We didn’t get to see a lot of you. You two were hiding for most of the Games.”

Lartius froze. The chill in his veins seemed to double. He heard Rendwick’s laugh in his ears. It was the first time his mind had played Rendwick’s voice since he left the arena. His limbs felt paralyzed, his mouth tightened. He shut his eyes and lowered his head. His mind flashed back to Rendwick dying in his arms. Lartius could practically feel Rendwick’s shallow breathing against his arms again. He curled his hands into fists. The room was silent for a while until the door opened.

“Is he ready?” he heard Tayena ask.

“Just about,” Bree replied.

Tayena set down Lartius’ outfit for his victory interview and walked up to him. She noticed his eyes were shut and looked back up at the prep team. “What did you do to him?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Aldeen said. “We just talked about the Games as we got him ready.”

“Did he say anything?” Tayena asked.

“No, but he’s never really talked to us,” Aldeen answered.

Lartius felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. “What happened right before I got here?”

“I asked him about his ally in the Games,” Cord answered reasonably.

Lartius squeezed his eyes more tightly shut. His hands uncurled but the rest of his body tensed up. He leaned over and put his face in his palms. Tayena noticed his reaction to Cord’s words.

“All right,” Tayena said firmly. “Not another word from any of you.”

“But-”

“No buts. Can’t you see he’s upset?”

“Yeah, I was trying to find out why,” Cord said.

“That’s not your place. You’re part of his prep team. You’re job is to get him ready for his victory interview in half an hour, not be his therapist.”

“But I just-”

“Not another word,” Tayena said with finality.

The prep team all glanced at each other and stepped back a little.

Tayena leaned down a little. “Breathe,” she instructed Lartius in a low voice. “Breathe. Relax.”

Slowly, Lartius began sitting up straight again. His eyes opened again but he looked down at the floor.

“Bree, get me his outfit,” Tayena instructed. “It’s on his bed.”

Time was passing too slowly for Lartius, even slower than it had seemed in the hideout. It had been that way ever since he’d won. He felt like everyone around him was moving at a normal speed but he couldn’t make himself do the same. He didn’t have all of his energy back. He probably would never get it back.

Tayena and his prep team helped him get dressed in silence. His eyes fogged up when they pulled the shirt over his head. He didn’t register anything about the outfit, like the color or design, just that he was wearing pants, a shirt, and a jacket made of a soft comfortable material. His shoes were fine, too. His prep team loved the outfit, though. As soon as he heard their voices again, he tuned them out. He was sick of them and how insensitive they were being. He vaguely heard one of them (he couldn’t tell who) say that he looked the part of a Victor.

Victor. As a kid, it was a title he dreamed of. As he grew up and started training, he was told not to think about it too much, and to focus on training for the Games. His trainers told him not to let the goal distract him from the journey. During the Games, things got complicated. The meaning of Victor got lost in his relationship with Rendwick. When Rendwick said that only one of them would survive at most, he wanted to avoid that title like the plague. He didn’t want to be a Victor if he had to kill Rendwick to get there. When they came up with their deal, the idea of being a Victor seemed farther away. Neither of them had a clear vision of how their deal would work out in the long run. They didn’t even have a chance to put their deal in motion, so they would never know if it would’ve worked or not.

He felt Tayena rouse him gently. “You’re all done.”

Lartius didn’t move. He didn’t nod or look at Tayena. She gently lifted him from the chair and walked him out of the bathroom. Brutus and Lyme were waiting for him in the bedroom.

“How is he?” Brutus asked.

“He’s ready, but he still isn’t talking,” Tayena said.

“Is he completely unresponsive?” Lyme asked.

Tayena sat him down on his bed. “No. Not completely.” Lartius heard her walk over to Brutus and Lyme.

“I noticed that he has a negative response when someone asks him about his ally from District 4,” Tayena whispered seriously. “He’s not going to want to talk about it in his interview.”

“You know Caesar’s going to ask him about that anyway,” Lyme replied in a low voice, but loud enough for Lartius to hear.

“Try to convince him not to,” Tayena replied. “It’s in his best interest.”

“I can’t do that, I don’t have control over the questions Caesar asks him in his victory interview,” Brutus countered.

“Try,” Tayena implored. “You had some level of control over the questions he asked in his interview before the Games-”

“This is different,” Brutus said shortly. “It’s imperative that Panem knows everything that happened, especially in this case, since the cameras didn’t catch a lot of him in the arena. Caesar is going to ask him about that.”

Lartius felt his stomach churn. He didn’t even have the energy to move on his own without some guidance, there was no way he would willingly reveal to all of Panem what happened between him and Rendwick. Plus, Rendwick wasn’t ready to come out to anyone else, the fact that they kept their relationship a secret to the very end showed that. Lartius wanted to respect that.

Tayena, Brutus, and Lyme were still arguing about the questions Caesar would ask in his victory interview. Lartius appreciated her fighting on his behalf. They talked about Lartius like he wasn’t even in the room. Lartius retreated back inside his head. He tried to focus on the happier times he’d had with Rendwick in the arena, but his thoughts would always lead right back to Rendwick’s death, and he would have to start over. He kept trying to play Rendwick’s voice in his head again, but still got nothing.

“We have to head downstairs,” Brutus said.

“He’s not talking,” Tayena said. “He doesn’t even look at anyone. How’s he going to do his interview?”

“Well, we have to tell Caesar and the producers. Maybe they can make it work.”

“How?” Tayena shot back.

“We have to try.”

Lartius felt his stomach clench. His mind went back to the hideout, before Rendwick went to face the spider. I don’t know but I have to try. I have to try. Again, he remembered the words, but couldn’t play back the voice. Everything was reminding him of Rendwick, mostly in an unpleasant way. He wished he could hold onto one of their good memories even just a little longer. They kept slipping away from him. The memory of his death was overpowering everything else.

Defeated, Tayena went back to the bed and took Lartius by the arm, guiding him out the door to the elevator. Everyone followed them down, since they all had to be introduced onstage before Lartius.

They reached the level where the Training Center was and stepped out of the elevator. One of the crewmembers Lartius remembered from the night of the interviews was about to take him from Tayena’s grasp, but she resisted. Brutus took him aside, whispering something urgently. The crewmember nodded and took all of them to the left, into the cafeteria.

Tayena turned one of the empty chairs around and sat Lartius down. She, Brutus, and his prep team all went to change into their outfits for the victory interview, leaving Lartius alone with Lyme and Meriel. Lyme wasn’t his mentor so she wasn’t taking part in the victory interview, and Meriel insisted she was dressed perfectly for her reveal.

Lyme dragged over another empty chair and sat down next to him. “Look, I know that you just went through hell,” she said, trying to be as sympathetic as she could. “But you have to make an effort here, okay? You’re from District 2, you have to maintain that tough, strong image we created for you before the Games. You lived up to it in the arena, now you just have to keep it going.”

“You have nothing to be scared of,” Meriel added. “You beat twenty-three tributes to win, an interview should be no problem for you. Just make sure you smile, that’s very important. The people want to see a happy Victor.”

Lyme glared at Meriel. She pointed a finger at the door. “Out.”

“But I was just-”

“Now.”

Meriel looked offended, but left the cafeteria. A few seconds later, Tayena and his prep team came back in.

“Meriel’s out in the hall,” Tayena noted.

“She was irritating me,” Lyme replied shortly.

Tayena nodded.

“Where’s Brutus?” Lyme asked.

“Talking to one of the producers. They’re trying to figure out a way to make the interview work if Lartius won’t even look at anyone.”

“And if they can’t?”

“They didn’t say.” She leaned against the nearest table. “Any progress?”

“None. He’s mute. Hasn’t said a word since he won.”

“Not even in the hovercraft on the way back?” Tayena asked.

“No, they would’ve told Brutus.”

Lartius heard the door open again.

“What did the producers say?” Lyme asked.

“They’re still working it out,” came Brutus’ reply.

“They’ve never canceled the victory interview before, have they?” Tayena asked.

“No, and they don’t want to. And they don’t want to delay the show either, given how long it is. They said they want him at least to be onstage, even if it’s just for the reveal.”

“So they just want to parade him around onstage like a puppet?” Tayena asked, indignant.

“They want to please the crowd,” Brutus replied. “They’re waiting for him. I’m sure his family watching at home is waiting for him, too.”

Lartius thought of his brother. Jax was probably elated that Lartius had won. He was only seven. He was too young to understand the psychological damage the Games caused. He only saw the glory of the Games. Lartius wondered if that was how Rendwick saw him, when they first reunited.

“You know, I don’t see what the big deal is,” Cord suddenly said.

“I know,” Bree said in agreement. “You go onstage, you smile, you wave, you watch highlights of the Games, and you answer questions. It’s not brain surgery.”

“Yeah, okay,” Tayena said, annoyed. “You three, out.”

“But we-”

“I don’t want to hear it. What did I say before about not saying another word?”

Lartius heard the door open and close as the prep team left the cafeteria.

“I hope I get a new prep team next year,” Tayena said. “You know, one a little less insensitive.”

“How the hell is this going to work?” Lyme asked. “He doesn’t move on his own and all he does is stare at the floor.”

“They said Caesar’s going to try to coax a verbal response from him,” Brutus said.

“That’s not going to work,” Lyme argued. “He hasn’t talked to anyone.”

“Not even you?” Brutus asked Tayena.

Tayena shook her head. “Maybe you can do his interview for him?” she suggested.

“If I did, I’d have to explain why he’s not talking, which we don’t know.” Brutus was pacing around one of the tables.

“Did you even try getting him to talk?” Lyme asked Tayena.

“Yes, of course I tried,” Tayena said defensively. “Just not the way Brutus did. I didn’t ask him direct questions. I was patient. I figured he would talk when he was ready.”

“Well, we don’t have that luxury anymore,” Brutus said. “He needs to be onstage soon.”

“Did you ask if they’d refrain from asking certain questions?” Tayena asked.

“I told you already, there’s no point in that,” Brutus replied, a little too harshly. “If I even brought it up, it would spike their curiosity and they’d make sure Caesar asked about his ally.”

Lartius’ mind was still trying to cling onto Rendwick. He had a feeling that the reason his memories of Rendwick seemed so short or distorted was because he didn’t have anything of his still with him, something he had during the Games, no physical token to remember him by. He thought of the backpack that he left in the hideout. He wished he’d taken it with him when he left. He knew Rendwick had a t-shirt in there. He would’ve kept that. Just so he had something of his. Anything. He didn’t care what it was. Even his own t-shirt with Rendwick’s blood on it, before it was washed, would’ve worked for him.

Lartius was desperately trying to hold onto Rendwick, trying to keep all those happy memories. And he didn’t have any trace of him left. Nothing he could physically, literally hold onto.

There was a knock on the door and Meriel poked her head inside. “Caesar is live in five minutes. Is he talking yet?”

Brutus shook his head. Meriel wanted to step in and help. She shut the door and went to sit next to Lartius, but Tayena lifted a finger at her, shaking her head. She knew Brutus, Lyme, and Meriel could be a little insensitive, Meriel in particular. They had to be gentle. Lartius had hidden for most of the Games. They had no idea what he went through. Lyme got up to let Tayena take her vacated seat next to Lartius.

“Lartius, you have to go do your victory interview,” she said gently. “Caesar is going to ask you what happened that the cameras didn’t see and you have to tell him. Okay?”

Lartius still refused to talk. He didn’t even shake his head. He just kept staring at the floor. He appreciated Tayena’s sympathy, and he knew that Brutus and Lyme understood he’d just gone through hell, but neither of them knew what exactly he’d gone through. Even if he told them what happened, they wouldn’t fully understand.

The door opened again. “Three minutes,” said an unfamiliar voice.

Brutus sighed in defeat. “Let’s go.”

“We can’t,” Tayena argued firmly. “He’s not talking now, he sure as hell is not going to talk onstage in front of everyone.”

“We have to go,” Brutus said with finality. “Now.”

Tayena glared at Brutus. She helped Lartius up from his seat and walked him out of the cafeteria. A pair of unfamiliar hands took his from Tayena’s grasp and guided him to a dark area under the stage. He was positioned on a metal plate, ready to rise up from beneath the stage. It was a dramatic way to present the Victor and his or her support team. First, the prep team, then the Capitol escort, the stylist, the mentor, and finally the Victor.

Lartius heard the rumbling of the audience above him as they entered the auditorium and took their seats. He didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want to be guided around onstage by other people. He didn’t want to answer Caesar’s questions. He didn’t want to see or hear the Capitol citizens’ reactions to the Games.

He heard footsteps behind him and a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“You’re gonna have to say something up there,” Brutus said in a low voice. “You know that, right?”

Lartius didn’t say anything. Brutus could tell Lartius had become tenser now that he was under the stage and the interview was about to start. Someone behind Brutus called for him.

“Just be strong, okay?” Brutus said to him. “You got this.” He gave Lartius one more pat on the shoulder before he left.

Lartius was left alone under the stage. He felt a sense of uneasiness in the pit of his stomach. Time was slipping away from him. Before he knew it, he would be rising on the metal platform and up onstage for the entire country to see. He pressed his lips together.

The anthem surged around the theater, making Lartius jump in alarm. The audience began to cheer in their seats. He didn’t want to see any of them. He knew their reactions to the Games were similar to his prep team’s. He knew they’d be singing a different tune if it had been their children, or even themselves, in the arena, having to go through what he did.

Lartius could hear Caesar from above him. “Welcome, everyone, to the victory ceremony of the 43rd Annual Hunger Games!” The crowd roared and applauded in response. “It was certainly an exciting one this year, wasn’t it?” More applause. “Just a general question, who predicted this outcome?”

A large majority of the crowd screamed and cheered. This dimly registered in Lartius’ mind. Had he won under different circumstances, he would’ve been appreciative that so many Capitol viewers believed in him. Instead, he didn’t feel any happiness or surge of pride in their cheers.

“Well, before we bring out our Victor, let’s have a hand for the people who helped us get to know him this year. His prep team: Aldeen, Bree, and Cord!”

More applause from the crowd. He couldn’t hear his prep team say anything. They were probably marveling at the attention they were getting, bowing and waving to the crowd.

“The District 2 Capitol escort: Meriel Pemberton!”

Lartius could’ve sworn he heard her elaborate shoes clacking across the stage from below. He knew she would be soaking up all the applause. She was used to it. She’d been a Capitol escort for a few years, and she’d been up on this stage at least once before.

“His stylist: Tayena Doreaov!”

He knew how Tayena would be onstage. She wasn’t flashy, she was always very poised. She would be gracious, she would wave politely to the crowd, but she wouldn’t savor the applause.

“His mentor and Victor of the 41st Hunger Games: Brutus Salvay!”

The crowd roared. They remembered those Games clearly, they knew all about him. And they were thrilled that he managed to guide another tribute to victory. Lartius knew Brutus would be courteous, but he was worried about how Lartius would fare onstage. Tayena would be, too.

“And finally-” the platform began to rise “-give a big round of applause to the Victor of the 43rd Hunger Games: Lartius Rankine!”

The crowd exploded in fresh cheers and applause. Lartius squinted a little at the bright lights being shone on him. He remembered what Lyme said about maintaining the image they created for him. He was supposed to appear tough, strong, and proud to be victorious. Brutus told him to be strong. He couldn’t make himself do it. He couldn’t even look up. He didn’t want to.

The cheers died off instantly. The audience could tell by his posture and body language that something was wrong. The entire room was eerily silent. Even Caesar was at a loss for words. Lartius heard someone walk towards him, take him gently by his shoulder, and guide him to the victor’s chair. Another smaller pair of hands joined the first pair. Brutus and Tayena, he assumed.

“Is everything all right?” Caesar finally asked, breaking the deafening silence in the theater.

Lartius heard Brutus hesitate. “We don’t know.”

More silence. Brutus and Tayena sat Lartius down in the victor’s chair. Lartius heard a little low shuffling from the crowd, as if people were shifting in their seats to get a better look at him.

“What do you mean? How do you not know?” Caesar asked.

“He hasn’t said a word since the hovercraft picked him up in the arena,” Tayena replied.

“Nothing?” Caesar asked, surprised.

“Nothing,” Brutus repeated.

Tayena leaned down to Lartius. “I’ll be right here, okay? My seat is a little far from you, but I’m here.”

“Me, too,” Brutus added. Out of the corner of his eye, Lartius saw them go to their seats on the left-hand side of the stage.

“Hmmm,” Caesar said, clearly thinking on his feet. “Well, maybe you might start talking if you had some encouragement!”

The audience began cheering again. This was the absolute worst way to get Lartius to talk. If Lartius could laugh, he would. He didn’t want to do anything to please the crowd. He didn’t really know what he wanted to do. He just knew what he didn’t want to do.

Caesar sat down in his chair next to Lartius. Eventually, the cheers faded away when the crowd realized they weren’t working. Caesar was starting to get nervous.

“Oh, I’ve got it,” he said. “We’ll bring Brutus and Tayena over here. Maybe you’ll feel more comfortable with them.”

The crowd applauded when Brutus and Tayena crossed the stage. A few stagehands took the chairs they’d been sitting on and carried them next to the victor’s chair so they could sit next to Lartius.

“Why don’t I talk to you two first, actually?” Caesar suggested. “It’ll give Lartius time to compose himself, and he can jump in whenever he wants to.”

Brutus nodded. Tayena was concernedly watching Lartius out of the corner of her eye.

“We already got a sense of Lartius and his personality from his interview before the Games,” Caesar said to Brutus. “Did his confidence change at all before he went into the arena?”

“No,” Brutus said, shaking his head. “He had a little pre-arena jitters, but every tribute goes through that. God knows I did. But I didn’t see any nerves out in the arena. He was all business.”

“Did you two know each other well before he was picked for the Games?” Caesar asked.

“Pretty well, yeah,” Brutus replied. “He was always a hard-working kid back home. That didn’t change when we got here.”

“So he fulfilled your expectations in the arena, especially with the win?”

Brutus paused for a bit. “Honestly, I expected to see more of him in the thick of the action.” Brutus turned his attention to Lartius. “We rarely saw you at all, it was like you disappeared for hours at a time.”

Lartius still didn’t say anything but his mouth tightened.

“What about the parachute full of nightlock, though?” Caesar said, changing the subject. The audience let out a few cheers. “That was really smart. Did you give him the idea?”

“Nope, that was all him,” Brutus replied. “I agree, it was brilliant.”

“Do you know where he got the idea?” Caesar asked.

Brutus shook his head again. “No clue.”

“What about you, Tayena?” Caesar asked her. “Were you proud of what he did in the arena?”

Tayena tore her eyes away from Lartius and looked at Caesar. “Of course I was proud of him. I’ve always had confidence in him.” Her answer was blunt. She was too distracted to be otherwise. She kept looked at Lartius for signs of something in his face. Often times she could read his mind through his facial expressions.

Caesar could tell Tayena didn’t want to answer questions for Lartius. He switched back to Brutus. “What about the alliances among the high-district tributes, were you surprised by that?”

Tayena looked from Caesar to Lartius nervously. She saw Lartius’ hands curl up into fists again.

“From what we’ve seen from past Hunger Games,” Caesar continued, “the tributes from District 1, 2, and 4 all tend to team up together to make it to the end. But this year we had two different alliances, and one of them even included a tribute from District 3. What’s your take on that?”

“You know,” Brutus answered, “everyone has their strategies for the Games. Sometimes the high-district tributes can all work together, sometimes they can’t.”

“Did you expect him to team up with the larger alliance?” Caesar asked.

“Yeah, I did, but I understood why he didn’t. That guy from District 4 was incredible to watch, especially when he took down the spider. I would’ve teamed up with him, too.”

Caesar spoke to Lartius directly. “You and your ally seemed quite friendly when you were out together. We didn’t get to see much, but when we did, both of you looked very relaxed and in good spirits. What was that about?”

The chill in his veins doubled again. Lartius lowered his head a little more and shut his eyes. He clasped his hands together tightly and rested his arms on his knees. He did not want to talk about Rendwick. Lartius knew how Caesar worked when he did his victory interviews. He knew what to ask them so he could pry certain answers out of the Victors. Lartius knew Caesar was going to direct his answers to get what the Capitol wanted. Lartius flat-out refused to cooperate. What happened between him and Rendwick was going to stay between him and Rendwick.

Tayena knew this would happen if Caesar so much as mentioned his ally. She instantly reached for his arm. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” she said. “Just breathe. Relax.” She squeezed his arm comfortingly. She heard him take a few deep breaths, in through his nose and back out, and his body relaxed. His hands uncurled but his eyes remained shut.

Caesar seemed a bit startled by Lartius’ reaction to his question. Clearly this interview was not going the way he planned. He looked up into the balcony seats, as though silently asking, “What now?”

“All right,” Caesar said, trying not to sound dejected, “well let’s watch the replay of the Games, maybe that’ll get you talking. It’s gotten all of us talking.”

Tayena let go of Lartius’ arm. Lartius’ insides turned to ice. He forgot about the three-hour replay of the Games. He kept his head down. He didn’t want to relive anyone’s death, especially not Rendwick’s. He didn’t need a reminder that he’d failed.

The video started off with the Reapings and the Tribute Parade. They showed a quick recap of the training scores and the interviews. Lartius braced himself in anticipation of Rendwick’s voice, but it didn’t come. His interview segment just had Caesar talking to him, but it cut off before Rendwick could say anything.

The video picked up when the bloodbath came on. Lartius could see it in his peripheral vision, the action swirling around the Cornucopia, the weapons moving around, the blood splattering everywhere. He remembered what Rendwick said about his neighbor Trexa’s death, and how it was the Gamemakers’ fault that she had died. Everything was starting to click for him now. He felt like the Gamemakers the real enemy, and the other tributes (aside from Rendwick, of course) were just obstacles to get to them.

The video showed Lartius most of the time. He was the Victor, so this was all about him. They replayed Lartius getting water at the fountain in the park on 23rd and him walking uptown to the tallest building, and getting a view of the whole arena before night fell. They replayed him heading back downtown and sleeping on the fire escape. Morning rose and the video showed Lartius heading down to 15th Street, looking for Rendwick, but he disappeared from view when he went down the fire escape.

There really wasn’t much to show of Lartius and Rendwick, since they spent the majority of the Games in the hideout. The video instead had to use footage of their biggest rivals: the high-district troupe. They showed Alto smashing Nitya’s head into the road and then joining the troupe to find Rendwick and Lartius. All other footage of Rendwick and Lartius involved them getting food and water, none of which was very interesting.

Then-

“You really want this to work, don’t you?”

Instantly, Lartius felt his heart tense up at the voice. He looked up at the screen. It was the first time he’d looked up from the ground in a long time. The Capitol was replaying Lartius and Rendwick on the roof the night they tested the nightlock parachute. It was one of his favorite moments with Rendwick. He’d felt more relaxed and comfortable that night. Out of everything in the Games, he didn’t think the Capitol would replay this. Lartius felt paralyzed as he watched.

“Well, yeah,” Lartius saw himself reply. “What other option do we have? I can’t think of another way to diminish the pack without the rest of them immediately coming after us. Say I throw a knife, and it gets Eunia in the neck. They’ll know it’s me and that I’m nearby. It’d be too dangerous and stupid to try and hide. If I ran for it, they’d catch up to me.”

“Why are you saying it like that?” Rendwick asked.

“Like what?”

“You keep saying ‘I’ and ‘me’. Like you’re doing this alone. We’re in this together, remember?”

“I know, I just meant hypothetically.”

“Yeah, but even hypothetically, why would you be alone in this?” Rendwick challenged. “Why would you think that I wouldn’t be right there next to you?”

Lartius watched himself try to find the right words. “No, I just meant-”

His heart thumped loudly in his chest as he watched a slow grin appear on Rendwick’s face.

“Why do you give me a hard time like that?”

Rendwick shrugged. “It’s fun. You get all flustered.”

“Shut up,” Lartius watched himself laugh a little onscreen.

Rendwick was laughing, too. Lartius didn’t take his eyes off Rendwick during that whole segment. He took in everything about Rendwick, his smile, how he was leaning forward a little, the sound of his voice, his laugh, the twinkle in his eyes whenever he looked at Lartius. Tears stung in his own eyes. It felt incredible to see Rendwick’s face again, to see his smile, and hear him talk and laugh, but it also made his chest feel very heavy, because he knew the replay was the last time he would get to see him again.

The scene changed abruptly to the boy from District 5 and the nightlock parachute. Lartius looked down again and did his best to drown out the noise. The next few segments were the boy from Five dying plus Eunia and Volumnia falling for the nightlock parachute several nights later.

Then, lights filled the screen. There was a shot of the arena, streetlights shining brightly, creating the spider web pattern. The cameras followed the giant spider as Rendwick and Lartius ran from the tallest building back to their hideout. The cameras lost them after they disappeared down the fire escape on the corner of 15th and Avenue F, so instead they focused on the girl from Twelve as she was viciously attacked by the spider. Lartius went back to blocking out the replay, but could hear her screaming, her voice seeming foggy and distant.

The familiar clanging on the fire escape brought him to his senses. Lartius looked up in time to see Rendwick jump down onto the pavement and walk downtown towards the giant spider, spear in hand. Lartius watched him as he tried to attack the spider from underneath it, but Rendwick was too tall and the spider was moving too quickly. He suspected the Gamemakers and Capitol citizens found that most enjoyable.

Rendwick climbed up the fire escape of the nearest building and tried to jump on top of it, but fell off. Lartius winced when Rendwick hit the concrete, as if he could feel the pain of his arm scraping against the road. Rendwick managed to keep the spider at bay as he raced back to the fire escape and tried again. He landed on the spider again and tried to stab its head, but missed and instead stabbed it in the eye. He fell off again and instead of heading back up the fire escape, the faced the spider head on and managed to blind each of its seven other eyes. He did well dodging the pincers and headed back for the roof.

The spider followed him up on the roof this time, causing Rendwick to run from rooftop to rooftop, trying to shake the spider off. Lartius’ breath caught in his chest when Rendwick dropped into the gap between two buildings and caught onto the rail of the fire escape. He didn’t get to see this at all from the hideout, since Rendwick was hidden from view. Rendwick climbed back up the fire escape, traveled to the next rooftop, and saw the stones covering the surface of the roof. He threw a handful of stones at the spider to get it’s attention. Lartius watched Rendwick drop off the roof and dig the blade of his spear into the spider’s body. He stabbed the spider’s head several times before he fell off a third time. Lartius remembered being back on the fire escape, watching the spider keel over onto its back, and being stunned that Rendwick had killed it on his own.

Having watched it up close and personal was horrifying, but Lartius felt a small twinge of pride when it was all over, as opposed to the relief he’d felt wash over him when he watched from the fire escape. He was very proud of Rendwick for defeating a Capitol-engineered mutt all by himself.

Lartius’ stomach plummeted when he saw Phox and Alto. They’d hidden in the Cornucopia to watch Rendwick battle the spider. When Rendwick followed it uptown, Phox and Alto quickly ran to the nearest building and stayed close behind him. They didn’t climb up the fire escape because it would make too much noise, so they stayed on the sidewalks, hiding in alleys to make sure they didn’t get noticed.

They took their chance when Rendwick got up to inspect the spider, to see if it was really dead. It happened so quickly. One minute Phox had grabbed the spear off the sidewalk, the next he was dangling it over the fire escape. Lartius watched Phox and Alto corner Lartius in the alley. Lartius wanted to look down. He didn’t want to see this. But he couldn’t make himself look away from Rendwick’s face. He felt his hands curl up into fists again.

The next several minutes were a terrible rush of silver blades and blood splattering everywhere. Whenever the blade of the spear retreated from Rendwick’s body, Alto was right there to deliver another blow, a punch or a kick. It seemed long and drawn-out. Lartius had a feeling that they’d slowed down the footage to make it seem like the attack on Rendwick lasted longer. Lartius tensed up even more when he heard Rendwick’s horrible cries of pain. He bit down on his lower lip so hard he drew blood. It tasted coppery in his mouth. The close angle of the attack made Lartius feel like he was standing right next to them, still feeling absolutely powerless. The taste of blood in his mouth made the replay much worse. His hands slowly uncurled. Lartius finally made himself look away and shut his eyes. He felt the tears coming again and put his face in his hands, his elbows propped up on his knees. I didn’t protect him, he thought to himself. I was supposed to protect him. We made a deal. He didn’t sob, heave, or shudder. He just cried quietly into his hands.

Brutus looked over at Lartius doubled over in his seat. He reached for Lartius’ shoulder, but Lartius didn’t regain his composure. Tayena got up from her seat and knelt down in front of him. He wouldn’t look at her.

“We have to stop,” Tayena said urgently to Brutus.

“We can’t,” he replied.

“Look at him,” she whispered fiercely. “He’s had enough. We need to cut this short.”

“We can’t,” Brutus repeated more firmly.

“What do they think is going to happen?” Tayena argued furiously. “He hasn’t said a word since he was in the arena! Do they think that seeing that is magically going to make him talk? This is just making everything worse for him!”

They started arguing again. Lartius retreated into his head again and did his best to block out what he just saw from his memory. He’d remembered thinking that ignorance could either be bliss or a heavy burden. Right now, it would be bliss. He’d give anything to erase seeing Rendwick getting attacked.

The entire time he ran from the hideout to the tallest building to trap Phox and Alto, he was focused on winning for Rendwick, fulfilling his promise. He was glad he had done it, but he didn’t think of what the aftermath of winning would be like. He remembered thinking he wanted to honor Rendwick some way, but he still didn’t quite know how he would do that. He had kept Rendwick’s promise and won the Games, and he’d kept his silence and not spoken about Rendwick’s sexuality (not that he could speak anyway). He didn’t really know what else he could do. His mind was too warped for him to think straight.

Lartius realized then that he never told Rendwick he loved him. He realized it too late. And he never got to find out if Rendwick felt the same way. That seemed to be one of the worst things about this for him. We’ll never know, he kept thinking to himself. We’ll never know. We’ll never know. He wondered if saying that he loved Rendwick might be that thing to honor Rendwick, but it might put Rendwick on the spot, too. And he was not going to speak on Rendwick’s behalf. He didn’t want to say anything Rendwick didn’t want the public to know. Lartius wanted to respect that.

The tears just kept coming. He thought avenging Rendwick’s death would make him feel better, more powerful, maybe help him get over his death. It didn’t. It just made everything worse for him. The Games turned him into a monster, then an empty shell.


The interview was cut short not too long after that. After the interview, Lartius was examined to determine his mental state. The doctors determined he was unresponsive due to deep psychological trauma and deemed him unfit to mentor new tributes.

Rendwick and Lartius’ elusion of the cameras and Rendwick’s battle with the spider that year called for new changes for the following Games. Firstly, improving the stamina and quality of giant mutts so it would take more than one person to destroy it. Secondly, installing extra cameras in every nook and cranny of the arena, as well as additional high-definition, motion-censored cameras in the artificial sky, high enough so that they wouldn’t be accidentally destroyed by a stray arrow.

And as for Lartius, rumor has it he remained in the custody of the Capitol and was placed in an asylum.

A/n: I’m sorry the ending was so depressing. I blame JKR, Suzanne Collins, and Cassandra Clare for killing off characters we like, giving us intense feels, and making us cry all over our keyboards going WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY EMOTIONS.

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